TravelTraveler Magazine

The Truth About Bedbugs

Let's exterminates some of the common misconceptions.

It’s become a rite of summer for the talking heads on the local news programs: a hysteria-inducing hotel bedbug epidemic story. The teary tales of vacations ruined, the zooms on the tiny red welts, and the infographic of the life cycle of the tiny invaders whose Latin name, Cimex lectularius, makes them sound like villains in a summer blockbuster.

It makes for must-see TV, but what should you believe? Let’s exterminate some of the common misconceptions:

1. It is a new problem. Actually, no.
 Bedbugs like to live in wood and fabric, close to their food supply, which is us. They are long-term tenants, having infested homes and inns for thousands of years.

“So what has changed?” asks Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an urban entomologist at Cornell University. We’ve started paying attention to bedbugs. “Public awareness skyrocketed,” she says. Thanks to news stories, TV reports, and blogs dedicated to Cimex sightings, just about every bedbug report is treated with only slightly less excitement than a bird flu outbreak.

In fact, says Gangloff-Kaufmann, the bugs weren’t as bad in 2012 as they were in 2010, but the coverage continues, making it seem to many travelers as if bedbugs are on an unstoppable march to conquer our planet.

2. You will bring bedbugs home from your travels. You might, if you happen to sleep in a bed with bedbugs, and if you leave your clothes and luggage on the bed, and if those bedbugs decide to climb from the infested bed to your luggage, and if you unpack your luggage on your bed, and if the bugs disembark and set up house in your bed. That’s a lot of ifs.

A quick inspection of the mattress and behind the headboard of the hotel room should reveal bedbugs’ shed skins, eggs, and hatched eggs even in daylight (when bugs are not active), and if that doesn’t give them away, then the telltale overripe raspberry odor will.

For those with an overabundance of caution, Louis Sorkin, an entomologist with New York’s American Museum of Natural History, suggests not putting clothes and luggage on your bed when traveling. Instead, he advises, “hang up the coat and place luggage in the bathroom when you first arrive.” And when you return home, put your luggage in the garage and your traveling clothes in the laundry immediately.

3. Bedbug bites are painful and cause disease. No and no. Half of the hotel guests who get bitten don’t even know it; the other half may experience some itching and skin inflammation for a few days.

According to Jerome Goddard, a professor of medical and veterinary entomology at Mississippi State University and a leading bedbug expert, “It’s no worse than a mosquito.”

And hope for a bedbug over a mosquito when it comes to carrying disease. Bedbugs have been studied extensively as possible carriers for everything from hepatitis to HIV. The result? Nada. I asked Goddard if he’d ever been bitten by one of the bugs in his laboratory, to which he replied, “How do you think I’ve fed them all these years?”

4. If they’re in one room, then they’re in every room of the hotel. Wrong. “In many hotels, the infestations are limited,” says Michael Potter, a professor of urban and medical entomology at the University of Kentucky. “Just because you see a hotel named in a bedbug registry website doesn’t mean all the rooms are infested.”

As a matter of fact, some hotels may have only one or two rooms affected by the blood-sucking insects, so fleeing the hotel may be an irrational move if you see evidence of the bugs. Instead of overreacting, insist politely on an insect-free room.

5. Online bedbug reviews are trustworthy. Not really. Reports are often inaccurate and outdated. Even attempts to quantify bedbug activity in a more scientific way often fall short.

Consider exterminator Orkin’s annual bedbug report, which in 2012 crowned Chicago as America’s bedbug capital, followed by Detroit and Los Angeles. According to Orkin, the least bedbuggy cities are Springfield, Illinois; Portland, Oregon; and Sioux City, Iowa. Problem is, Chicago is a major city with lots of people (and Orkin branches). Sioux City? Not so much. So it’s folly to use an online database of bedbug sightings or even a more scientific survey of insect sightings to plan your vacation.

You’ll find plenty of jittery hotel guests this summer who think they’re bound to sleep with bedbugs. One commonly cited survey by pest management company Steritech claims a quarter of the hotel rooms in the United States needed treatment for bedbugs, but few bother to note that even if rooms were deemed to need treatment, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were infested, nor that guests would have been bitten. And bear in mind, these pest-control folks have a product to sell. Kind of like, ahem, the news media.

Truth is, these insects can pop up just about anywhere, not only in hotels. They’re in apartments, churches, hospitals, laundromats, movie theaters, and offices right in your neighborhood. Wherever there’s blood, you’ll find the bugs. There’s really no escaping them this summer or any summer. What can you escape from? The hype. So switch the channel or turn off the TV and relax. You’re on vacation.

Christopher Elliott serves as resident consumer advocate and ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler, and writes the “Insider” column for the magazine. Follow his story on Twitter @elliottdotorg.