June 6-13 is National Bed Bug Awareness Week. This story first ran in 2016. It has been updated for 2021.
Compared to all the horrors and real problems in the world, a bedbug infestation might seem insignificant. That is, until it happens to you – in which case you realize it’s one of life’s most horrifying, stressful and expensive experiences.
I know this because it happened to my family in 2012 after a wonderful, memory-making vacation to Washington D.C.
June 6-13, 2021 is national Bed Bug Awareness Week.
As a scrappy traveler who has crashed on many couches, I was fine with renting two-star motels – if the price was right. However, after bringing home these evil, blood-sucking bugs as "souvenirs" and spending thousands of dollars to get rid of them, I am much, much, much more careful about when I rest my head when on the road.
The disturbing fact is, bedbugs are found everywhere – from cheap flop houses to the most opulent hotels. The belief that lack of cleanliness or poverty attracts bedbugs is myth. Blood, body heat and CO2 attract bedbugs and since all humans provide this, infestations happen everywhere, from mansions to movie theaters.
"Bedbugs don’t discriminate, they can be anywhere," says Randy Rupert, team leader of Batzner Pest Control’s bedbug services.
So, how can you prevent the hellscape of a bedbug infestation?
Rupert has many suggestions and as a person who still has PTSD from my infestation three years ago, I highly recommending putting them into action when traveling.
First off, Rupert strongly suggests that luggage does not enter the hotel room until it was thoroughly checked for bugs. "Leave your baggage in the car or outside your room while you search for bedbugs," says Rupert. "Bedbugs do not travel on bodies, they travel in suitcases. They’re 'hitchhikers.'"
Pack a flashlight or, if you have one on a smartphone, use it to search for signs of bedbugs. Most likely, bedbugs won’t be found in the bed because they hide out in crevices during the day, waiting to come out until a person is asleep, so search for the bedbugs’ shed skin or fecal matter which looks like black or brown dots made by a fine-tipped marker.
"Bedbugs don’t like to be disturbed," says Rupert. "So they usually do not live in hotel beds which are changed daily by housekeeping. They are most likely living somewhere near the bed, but not in it. Although sometimes they live in the box spring, which is less disturbed by staff."
To inspect the bed, pull back the blankets, sheets and the mattress pad and inspect the seams for dark dots. Also check the bed skirts, which are laundered less than the rest of the bedding.
Bedbugs like to hole up during daylight in small, dark spaces near the bed, so vigilantly check headboards, night tables, picture frames and wallpaper. Hence, pull the bed away from the wall and thoroughly inspect the headboard as well as the back of the night tables, the seams of chairs and couches, drawers, drapes and baseboards. Look for places where wallpaper or wallpaper boarders have pulled away from the wall.
If any signs of bedbugs are detected, leave the room immediately and report it to the hotel manager. According to Rupert, it is most likely safe to stay at the hotel because most infestations are room by room, not the entire building.
After determining the room is clear, store your suitcases in the bathroom – ideally, the tub or shower – because bedbugs are not attracted to cool, hard ceramic tile. Do not put your clothes in the drawers. Suitcases can be put on the metal racks, but the racks need to be away from beds and furniture. The idea is to keep bedbugs from crawling out of their dark corners and into your suitcase.
"It’s tempting to put a suitcase on a second bed in a hotel room, but don’t do that," says Rupert.
While staying in the room, do not leave any clothing on the floor, bed or furniture. "Not even socks," says Rupert.
After a trip, Rupert recommends immediately putting travel clothes directly in the dryer and run on high heat for an hour. Only temperatures of at least 120 degrees will kill bedbugs, which is part of the reason why it's so difficult to get rid of them.
"The more little things you do to prevent bedbugs the better chance you have at not bringing them into your home," he says.
Rupert says he has found bedbugs in hotels twice while on vacation and has made many trips professionally to rid hotel infestations. He also trains hotel staff on how to prevent and identify bedbugs.
"Hotel staffs are generally very educated about bedbugs," he says.
According to a list released by Orkin, Milwaukee is the 26th most bedbug-infested city. Chicago is number one and states in the Midwest, in general, have higher rates of bedbug infestations.
"In my experience, business keeps getting busier," says Rupert. "Bedbugs are showing up in every neighborhood, from the poorest to the most affluent. Bedbugs are not going away."
Bedbugs live off of human or animal blood. The bites often appear on arms, stomachs and legs and are small mosquito bite-looking lesions usually in a row. People do not feel bedbugs biting them because bedbug saliva contains a numbing agent.
Interestingly, about 35 percent of the population does not react to a bedbug bite, whereas others gets welts, spots or rashes.
"I’ve seen it where there’s two people sharing a bed and one is covered in bites and one doesn’t have a single bite," says Rupert.
Although bedbugs do not carry disease, an infestation is often extremely emotionally terrifying for people.
"When people get an infestation they are very frightened and panicked," says Rupert. "Bedbugs are very scary. It’s like the old vampire movies, they hide in the dark all day and when you fall asleep, they come out and bite you. There is nothing worse than lying there, knowing they are coming for you."
Travel is the most common way people get bedbugs, but used furniture is a close second followed by house guests.
To rid a space of a bedbug infestation there are limited options. Bedbugs are incredibly hearty and resilient and will go dormant for up to 18 months if they are without a food / blood source. They can only be eradicated through chemical or heat treatments. Chemical treatments are generally cheaper, but take up to 10 weeks to work. Heat treatments are costly and include heating homes or buildings to at least 122 degrees for six hours or more to kill the bugs which can live in very high heat.
The cost for bedbug treatment varies from about $500 to a few thousand.
Dogs – mostly beagles – are often trained to detect bedbugs. Batzner has four dogs "on staff," who are sent onsite to sniff out infestations and to assure people the bugs are gone after treatment.
People often make the mistake of throwing out their furniture or bed/bedding when they discover an infestation. Because the bugs can be living virtually anywhere – including inside electrical sockets, books or baseboards, there is no guarantee the bugs will disappear by throwing out furniture or clothing. Also, tossing bedbug-inhabited furniture into alleys can infest entire neighborhoods.
According to Rupert, bedbugs have been around since the beginning of civilization. They originally lived in caves and feasted on bat blood, but once humans moved into caves, they started to live off of their blood and eventually moved with the cave dwellers into villages.
Bedbugs do not serve a specific purpose on the food chain. Spiders, centipedes and roaches will eat them, but they are only a small part of their diet.
"Bedbugs are vampires," says Rupert. "They invade our most private space, our bed, and they take advantage of us when we are most vulnerable, but want to believe we are safest: when we are sleeping."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.