How to find bed bugs

Bed Bugs When You Travel

Last updated: 4 December 2017

Fresh from my third encounter with bedbugs in as many days (three out of my last five beds had the critters – a bad ratio by any standards), it seemed an appropriate time to share my tips on dealing with bed bugs when you travel.

7 Steps for spotting bed bugs when you travel

Of course, the best option is always going to be avoiding meeting bed bugs in the first place, but that isn’t always an option when you’re moving from one unknown guesthouse, hotel or hostel to another. The good news is that, contrary to popular myth, you can see bed bugs, and even if they are hiding when you check, there are a number of other good indicators to look out for, too.

After having had a scrape with these biters a fair number of times, here’s what I’ve learned about how to spot bed bugs.

1. Look for dander and eggs

Bed Bugs When You Travel

Look for what? Dander – the skin of bed bugs that is shed over time. If bed bugs are present, dander may be on top of the sheets or under the sheets, on the mattress. Don’t just rely on sight – run your hand over the sheet/mattress to see if you feel anything crumb-like (gross, but you can wash your hands afterwards).

In a room that has recently been made-up, any dander may have been brushed away so re-check after an hour or two. If your bed seems to be getting gritty for reasons you can’t explain (you already took a shower after the beach), it’s possible bugs are on the move.

2. Check for mattress stains

Bed Bugs When You Travel

Photo by: lou_bugs_pics.

Another grim fact – bed bugs comprise mainly blood. Consequently, when they get squashed (they’re ultimately no match for a person rolling over on them), they bleed out. This results in red/brown stains that tend to be focused around the mattress seams where the bugs get trapped.

3. Give the mattress and bed a shake

As it is possible to see bed bugs, one of the most obvious ways to bring them out of their hiding place is to give the bed and mattress a shake. The bugs may not oblige, but more than once I’ve seen them scurry when confronted with the bed bug equivalent of an earthquake.

4. Tune into your inner-itch

Ok, not the most scientific method for checking for bed bug presence, but before I’d figured out the other indicators of bed bugs, I woke more than once in the night feeling itchy. I didn’t have a huge number of bites, but my inner-itch instinct told me something wasn’t right.

5. Look for bites

Bed Bugs When You Travel

Photo by: stonemonkey.

This is a tough one, particularly when you’re in a tropical country with a number of pests vying for your blood including mosquitoes and fleas. All three bite types will leave you with a red welt that itches, so it can be difficult to distinguish between the bites. As well as looking for the other signs of bed bugs, generally I find that, unlike flea or mosquito bites, bed bug bites tend to feel itchy yet tender when scratched, unlike mosquito and flea bites, where relief usually come from scratching (at least at first).

Equally, bed bug bites broadly follow a line and are grouped in threes – commonly referred to as breakfast, lunch and dinner as the bugs feast on your flesh!

6. Look for blood smears

As well as mattress stains, it’s common to see marks on sheets that look like you might have dropped a red/brown marker pen on the bed. Gross warning: this is basically squashed excrement that is mainly comprised of blood. More than once I have seen this as an early indicator of bugs after I’ve sat on the bed for a while.

7. Look for the bugs themselves

Bed Bugs When You Travel

Photo by: medilldc.

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They’re pretty fast movers and are human shy (despite biting you) so won’t hang around too quickly, but bed bugs are visible. They are a dark/red colour often best described as mahogany, but I have seen then looking more translucent if they haven’t fed for a while. While size will depend on age, the ones I’ve spotted have been between a quarter to half of a little fingernail in size.

If the above checks don’t show any bed bug signs, you can probably sleep peacefully. However, if you do discover the presence of bed bugs…

What to do when you find bed bugs

1. Isolate your belongings

The most important thing to do when you find bed bugs is to isolate your belongings – you don’t want to take the problem with you. Put all clothes and items that have come into contact with the bed into a plastic bag and seal it. Equally, close up your bag sealing safe all of your non-contaminated items.

As a preventative measure, try not to place your clothes on a bed until you’re confident it is devoid of bugs.

2. Get out of the room

So, it’s a nice hotel in a good location at the price you want? So what. Get out – bed bugs can seriously hinder your fun and are rarely worth the risk. Don’t worry if you’ve already paid – most places will refund your charges if you point out the issue, and if they don’t, persist and complain.

Unfortunately, there may be times when it is the middle of the night and it is not practical to move accommodation. In that case, ask for a change of room, find a hammock if there is one or an alternative place to sleep and get out as soon as you can the next day.

3. Notify the hostel or hotel

Bed Bugs When You Travel

Photo by: grenade.

There will always be exceptions, but most hotel managers and owners are mortified at the idea of bed bugs and there is nothing more likely to kill custom than a review that utters the ‘B’ word. Sadly for hotel businesses, it is usually people who bring bugs into their establishment and unless you tell them that they have them, they won’t know to act.

Unfortunately, there are some also places that simply don’t care and in that case, feel free to go online and leave an informative review.

4. Get heat treatment

As mentioned above, heat treatment is one of the most effective ways to deal with bed bug. When you’re on the road, the easiest way to do this is to take your clothes to a launderette and subject them to an hour-long stint in the tumble drier at the hottest heat setting. If this is not an option, you can investigate chemical treatments and sprays, but these aren’t so kind on the environment or your clothes.

5. Check and spray your bag

As well as decontaminating your clothes, it’s important to inspect your bag and other belongings. Although it is not ideal, giving your bag a spritz with bug spray is likely to be your best option.

What NOT to do when you have bed bugs

1. Freak out

Bed begs are unpleasant, they bite, they itch and they can get into your stuff, which is all pretty horrid stuff, but they do not kill you. Freaking out is a natural instinct but try to keep calm and you will be better able to deal with the situation rationally.

2. Take it out on the hostel/hotel owner

As I mentioned above, the presence of bed bugs is often the result of travellers bringing the critters with them, not the property, and  it is sadly one of the hazards of running such a business. Most property owners will deal with the problem quickly and effectively  when they are alerted to the problem and shouting at them will not help. Sadly, there will be times that the issue isn’t dealt with effectively, but all shouting will do in those circumstances is make you more stressed and angry. A follow-up email to the hotel or complaint or honest review online is likely to be more effective.

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3. Throw everything away

Bed Bugs When You Travel

Photo by: hooliaf.

When spotted quickly and before bed bugs have had a chance to come into contact with your belongings, you may not need to do anything other than move accommodation. Even if you think there is a risk the bugs have transferred to your belongings, it is possible the treat bedbugs (see above), so don’t react by throwing everything away.

4. Stay put

The longer you stay at an infested location, the more likely you will take bed bugs with you on the rest of your trip or home. Get out as soon as you can and do not go back – there are plenty of places to stay around the world, you don’t need to tolerate bed bugs.

How to minimise your chance of bed bugs

Bed bug protection kit what to do when you have bed bugs

I’ve just discovered this bed bug travel protection kit on Amazon. I haven’t had a chance to try it yet and it’s kind of expensive (at $50) but it includes bed bug traps so you can tell if you have bugs within an hour and a protection spray. The kit includes chemicals but they’re plane safe, which helps me justify the price. If you’re paranoid (as we can easily become when we feel that inner itch), it might be a good investment. Let me know if you try it.

Check out the kit on Amazon here.

1. Check reviews

Before you turn up at a new location, check out your intended hostel or hotel online. Reviewers on sites like Hostelworld and Hostelbookers are usually pretty frank, but otherwise searching the name of your accommodation plus bed bugs should provide you with some valuable information.

2. Eye up other guests

Itching, red and blotchy guests might be a sign that bed bugs are present. It’s possible any bites were gained in a previous place so the best way to find out is to (subtly) ask. Try not  to freak your fellow travellers out – they may not know what is causing their itch.

3. Try baby oil

I know some travellers swear by baby oil to keep bed bugs away. Rubbed onto the skin before bed time, the theory is that the oiled skin keeps the bugs from getting sufficient traction to bite. Now, I’ve not tested this myself so don’t know if it will work, but at least you will  wake up with super soft skin (just make sure you don’t stain the sheets with too much oil, especially if you’re likely to be charged).

Now, suitably itchy and disgusted, feel free to go take a shower…or share your own bed bug horror stories in the comments below.

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3. Bed Bug Fecal Matter

How to spot them: Dark or black stains that look like the marks of a felt tip pen, will usually bleed into the fabric.

Signs of Bed Bugs

We hate to break it to you, but these stains are digested blood, aka bed bug poo.

If you have an infestation, you don’t have to look far for these bed bug signs – they can usually be found on the bed sheets you sleep on since around 20% of the time, bed bugs will void remains of earlier bloodmeals (aka, poo) while still feeding.

You can confirm whether they are, in fact, bed bug feces by wiping it with a wet rag – if it smears, it is indeed bed bug feces.

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If not on your bed sheets, look for them in the bed bugs’ typical hideouts like along mattress seams and the edges and corners of boxsprings.

If you find bed bug fecal spots, there’s a strong chance you’re dealing with a bed bug infestation. To get a clear confirmation, show the fecal matter to a professional or test it at home Bed Bug Blue’s Fecal Spot Detection Kit.

4. Bed Bug Eggs and Empty Eggshells

How to spot them: Bed bug eggs are translucent to pearly white in color and when first laid, are coated in a shiny film to help them stick to surfaces. Empty eggshells look like the live ones, except less shiny and a little deflated. Bed bug eggs are shaped like a grain of rice and very, very tiny – around 1mm. Still visible to the naked eye, but a magnifying glass helps.

bed-bug-eggs bed-bug-larvae

For such a little bug, bed bugs can lay a lot of eggs. A single female bed bug lays up to 5 eggs per day, totaling an average of over 500 eggs in her lifetime!

That means if you’ve got a bed bug infestation, there are going to be a lot of eggs. You’ll find them mostly on fabric, or other rough surfaces – bed bug moms tend to shy away from plastic or metal.

Tons of them can fit into tiny cracks and crevices so you’ll want to check even the tiniest nooks and crannies.

5. Bed Bug Shells, aka Shed Skin

How to spot them: Look for clear, empty exoskeletons that look like lighter-colored and empty bed bugs. They can be as small as 2.5mm or as big as 4.5mm. They sort of look like smaller and thinner popcorn kernels.

Signs of Bed Bugs

After a bed bug hatches from its egg, it starts life as a nymph (aka, young bed bug). They look like adult bed bugs, except they’re smaller, lighter-colored and sexually immature

As they make their way into maturity, they’ll pass through a total of 5 molts (shedding their skin), once at each new stage of development.

That’s a lot of shed skin – look for these in the usual bed bug hangout joints – box springs, mattresses, wooden furniture and framing, and so on.

6. Adult Bed Bug

How to spot them: Oval-shaped and usually brownish, adult bed bugs are freakishly flat and can range in size from 4.5mm to as long as 7 or 8 mm when fed – approximately the size of an apple seed. They turn a reddish color when fed from being swollen with blood.

How Do You Know if You Have Bed Bugs How Do You Know if You Have Bed Bugs

Especially when taken together, the above 5 signs of bed bugs are strong indications of an infestation – but how do you know you have bed bugs? Like, really, really know?

Actually seeing the full-grown, apple-seed-sized adult bed bug itself with your own eyes is the gold standard of bed bug identification.

This is harder to do than you’d think, though, since these parasites do a great job lurking out of human sight. They’re nocturnal by nature, feed strategically at times when you’re most likely to be in deep sleep, and even though they can’t jump or fly, they can move quickly.

They’re most likely to be hiding out somewhere close to where you sleep but can live anywhere, including phones, purses, clothing, and furniture.

But you don’t have to go in search of them – they will come to you. You are their source of nourishment, after all. And catching even one of these buggers will help you verify for certain whether you have a bed bug infestation.

A simple way to catch some is to lay some bed bug traps under your bed legs or lifts – they’ll have to climb over these traps to try to get your bed and get trapped in the process.

If you collect some, grab a magnifying glass and find out how to identify bed bugs. Even better, get a professional to identify them.

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