Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Expert exterminator tips for keeping the menaces at bay.
Dear CityLab: I stayed in a hotel and got bitten up by bedbugs. How do I avoid a full-blown infestation when I get home?
Yikes! If it’s any consolation, you're not alone in your scratching. Two very disgruntled NYC tourists recently posted a gristly video to YouTube. (Gothamist called it “the Blair Witch Project of bedbug videos.”) The chronicle showed how the couple’s arms and torsos had become a veritable feast for a horde of hungry bedbugs in a Manhattan hotel on Central Park West.
“It looked like black mud was jammed into the seam of the bed,” one of the guests explained to the New York Daily News. His descriptions only got more colorful: “They looked like they could hurt horses. It was a colony, a breeding ground.”
After those retch-inducing quotes—not to mention your own itchy welts—you may be tempted to collapse into a heap on the floor and pick at your scabs while you weep. That’s fair. Even though bedbugs don’t carry transmittable diseases, they make us go a little crazy. Brooke Borel, author of Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World, explained it to me this way: The fact that the bugs nibble on us while we sleep dismantles the comforting idea that “our bedrooms are our sanctuaries." It makes us feel under siege in a place we want to associate with tranquility.
Try to keep it together long enough to take these steps to prevent the problem from getting worse. Here’s what you need to know next time you travel.
Before you reserve a hotel:
Try to figure out if your prospective hotel has had trouble with bedbugs in the past. The Bed Bug Registry has collected thousands of reports from across North America and the U.K. Many cities maintain their own records of complaints, too. And then there’s Yelp. Chances are good that if someone left a hotel scratching, they took to the Internet to pen an enraged account of it. But pay attention to the date stamp; a years-old review won’t necessarily tell you much about the current state of things.
Once you get there:
First, ferry your luggage directly into the bathroom. Don Clark, owner of Alleycat Exterminating in Brooklyn, says that the cold tile makes it a place where bedbugs are unlikely to hang out.
Then, launch an investigation into the nooks and crannies around the bed. (Clark recommends Bed Bug TV for a short tutorial.) Yes, the inspection is tedious, but bedbug infestations are quite common and cut across locations and socio-economic markers: you can get chomped on whether you’re in a hovel or luxe digs. (“I get about three panicked voicemails around 11 p.m. each night,” Clark says.) In 2015, 99.6 percent of pest-control specialists battled bed bug infestations, according to a survey conducted by the University of Kentucky and the National Pest Management Association. Most cases were sniffed out in apartments or condos, followed by single-family homes and hotels.
Throughout your stay, keep your luggage off of the floor—“bedbugs like to crawl around on the floor and walls,” Clark says. And keep your dirty clothes separate from your clean ones by putting them in a plastic bag. (Don’t toss them on a fabric armchair, either—bedbugs love those.)
When you get home:
The first thing to do is dump your laundry straight from your bag into the washing machine or dryer (a 20-minute heat cycle should do the trick).
Then, to kill anything that may have hitched a ride, Clark suggests placing your luggage into a garbage bag with a Nuvan pest strip and letting it work for three days. You can also spritz your luggage with a spray designed to kill any bugs that may have sneaked in. Heat chambers are a slightly larger investment, but “let it cook, and that will kill everything,” Clark says. (He uses a ZappBug model.)
Try not to freak out, Clark adds. “It is just a bug, at the end of the day.”