BEDBUGS 101

Sleep Tight: Battling Bedbugs

Bedbugs feed on human blood.
Bedbugs feed on human blood. (By University Of Florida Via Associated Press)

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

By now, many travelers have heard about the Chicago woman who's suing a Catskills hotel for $20 million because of all the bedbug bites she says she got there. Hers was apparently an extreme case -- she claims she got about 500 itchy, burning bites during a three-night stay. But the lawsuit (and a handful of similar ones in the United States over the past few years) has drawn big attention to the tiny critter -- one that's increasingly been making its presence known to travelers since the early 1990s. Here's what you need to know.

WHAT THEY ARE: Bedbugs (Cimex lectularius) are flat, brown, nocturnal insects that feed on blood. Nymphs (the baby bugs) are tiny -- "about the size of the letter 'L' on a penny," says Stoy Hedges, a bedbug expert at Terminix -- but adults are about a quarter-inch long. They don't have wings, so they must crawl toward their food.

The bugs tend to gather in headboards or along mattress or boxboard seams so they don't have to crawl too far for what experts call their "blood meal." They need that blood meal to grow larger and to produce eggs (which, being tiny and whitish, are really hard to see), but they can go as long as a year without eating.

THE BACK STORY: Bedbugs were plentiful in the United States until the mid-20th century, when powerful pesticides like DDT were introduced and kept them in check. But when those pesticides were banned (DDT in 1972) for the dangers they posed to humans and the environment, bedbugs began a quiet resurgence, with first reports coming from hotels.

The National Pest Management Association reports a fifty-fold increase in bedbug-related calls over the past few years. Some experts suspect that their increased presence over the past 20 years is related to an upswing in foreign travel: Bedbugs are happy hitchhikers, stowing away in suitcases and even shoes, anywhere that promises to keep them close to human bodies. In addition, they have remained common overseas through the years, particularly in underdeveloped locales.

WHAT THEY DO: The good news is that while bedbug bites can sting, burn or itch -- depending on your body's reaction to the anticoagulant the bug injects to keep your blood from clotting until it's done eating -- they're almost always harmless. Bedbugs aren't known to transmit diseases. And because their bites are generally painless (their saliva contains a numbing agent so you won't interrupt their meal by waking up and swatting them), you might never know you've been bitten. In the grand scheme of things, bedbugs really aren't all that bad.

But they sure are gross. Bedbugs turn reddish-brown when they're full of blood (your blood, that is), and as they return to their hiding spaces, they excrete some of what they've just eaten, leaving little red spots on the sheets. Still, experts say, bedbugs -- unlike, say, cockroaches -- aren't necessarily a sign that a hotel's unsanitary; they bed down at even the toniest establishments.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: There's nothing you can spray on yourself or a bed to keep bedbugs from biting. Hedges says there's no science to suggest insect repellents like OFF! work`.

But there are steps you can take to protect yourself. Hedges -- who says he's never spotted bedbugs in any of the many hotel rooms he's stayed in (and, yes, he checks) -- recommends the following:

· Check the mattress, box spring, sheets and headboard of your hotel bed -- looking carefully for actual bugs or for those telltale bloodstains -- before you unpack your bags. It's also worth checking lampshades and nightstands near the bed and upholstered furniture anywhere in the room, as bedbugs have been known to hang out there, too. If you see anything suspicious, ask for a new room. An infestation in one room doesn't mean there'll be bedbugs in the next room, Hedges says.

· Don't leave anything on your bed or on the floor next to your bed.

· Hang your clothes in the closet farthest from the headboard and put your suitcase on the fold-out rack most hotels provide.

· Don't even leave your shoes by your bed, suggests Hedges, who says he's less afraid of being bitten at a hotel than of carrying bedbugs home in his shoes or suitcase.

IF YOU'RE BITTEN: Bedbug bites usually just look like little red bumps; sometimes, though, they resemble mosquito bites and, when your body reacts severely, they rise into red welts. If that happens, check with your doctor, who might recommend an antihistamine or a topical cream to relieve any itching or burning.

INFORMATION: Because bedbugs don't transmit disease, there isn't a font of available info sources. The Web sites for Terminix ( http://www.terminix.com/ ; click on "Termite and Pest Information," then "Pest Library" and go to the "Biting Insects" category); the National Pest Management Association ( http://www.pestworld.org/ ; search for "bedbugs"); and the Harvard School of Public Health ( http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/bedbugs ) do offer some insights.

-- Jennifer Huget


© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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