(This article is the full version of the summary published in Shell Outpost The Hague newsletter July-August 2017)
Summer is here. School break is coming. Travel plans roll in. But make sure bedbugs don’t hitchhike your trip. Here are helpful pointers you need to protect your home from these unwanted souvenirs.
1. What are bedbugs? How do they look like?
Bedbugs are small crawling insects that feed on blood. Adults are reddish brown, oval-shaped and are approximately 5-7mm in length, which the nymphs (young bedbugs) are smaller versions of the adults approximately 1mm in length and lighter in colour.
In the Netherlands, only one species is prevalent, which is the common bedbug (Cimex lectularius). According to National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu), bedbugs were almost eradicated after the second World War due to improved living conditions in temperate regions. The use of pesticides such as DDT that time also contributed to its decline. However, since 1995 the number of reported bedbug infestations is on increasing trend here and worldwide, especially with the rise of international travel.
2. Are bedbug bites dangerous? What are the bite signs?
The good news is that there is no current evidence of bedbugs transmitting diseases through their bites. However, the bites can be very annoying, itchy and disruptive to your sleep, causing mental and emotional distress. Bedbugs, both adults and nymphs, bite on exposed skin during sleep, usually around back, shoulders, neck and chest, and sometimes on arms and legs as well. Unlike fleas and lice, bedbugs do not live on host, and they only crawl from their harbourage to humans to feed.
Bedbugs do not live on (human) host, unlike fleas and lice. They only crawl out to feed.
Reaction to bedbug bites can vary from one person to another. On one end of spectrum, some may show no reaction to the bites or experience very little itch, whereas on the other end, some may suffer allergic reactions. The appearance of bedbug bites may vary, with the common ones resembling raised red bumps, either singular or several in a row or a cluster.
3. How do I know if I have bedbugs?
Other than bites, you can look out for signs of bedbugs in form of (a) clusters of tiny blood spots, which are digested blood excreted from the bedbugs; and (b) live or dead bedbugs, cast moults and eggs. Look out for the signs around bed linen, mattress seams, bed frames and even furniture, carpet edges, loose wallpaper, fixtures and power sockets around the bed. A room with heavy infestation of bedbugs will have a pungent sweet and musty smell that resembles cilantro or coriander.
4. How do bedbugs spread?
Bedbugs are mostly spread through travel, not poor hygiene or negligent housekeeping.
According to Bedbug Central (2015), the most common misconception is that bedbugs are caused by poor hygiene and negligent housekeeping. In fact, bedbug infestations can affect all types of buildings, even luxury hotels.
Bedbugs are mostly spread through travel, where travellers such as business travellers, airline crew, backpackers and vacationers accidentally pick up bedbugs from infested shared accommodation, such as hotels, vacation rentals and hostels, and introduce them into their homes or next accommodation of their travel. This spread is exacerbated even more with today’s proliferation of affordable travel and shared accommodation, catalysed further by globalisation and stiff competition within travel and hospitality industry.
5. How can I prevent from getting bedbugs?
“Prevention is better than cure”
Firstly, make sure your hotel room is free of bedbugs before you settle in. A simple check is to pull off the covers and check the seams and corners of mattress. If you can see bedbugs, or blood spots, the room may have current or previous bedbug activity. You can notify the hotel and request politely to have your room changed.
Secondly, upon your return home, avoid unpacking your luggage in your bedroom. Instead, unpack in the living hall or open area so that you can detect any bedbug that is hiding among your clothes or inside the bag seams. Only store your empty bag and put your clothes away as usual once you are certain that you have no sign of bedbugs. This is to avoid cross-infestation between rooms if there are any bedbug in your luggage.
Another preventative measure is using mattress encasements. It comes in a form of smooth polyester fabric that fits snugly to the mattress and is available at DIY and furniture stores. This seamless layer of protection prevents bedbugs from accessing the mattress, and traps any bedbug that may already be present in it.
Always check second-hand mattresses, bed frames or any furniture for any sign of bedbugs before bringing them into the house.
6. Oh no, I have bedbugs! What should I do?
Do not throw out your mattress! If you think throwing away your mattress will solve the problem, stop. Despite the name, bedbugs do not exclusively harbour in beds, but also in concealed areas around the bed within crawling distance (for example, in your bedside tables and power sockets by your bed).
Inspect & contain further infestation. Inspect each item in the infested room carefully for bedbugs. First, bag up items that is cleared to be free of infestation and remove from room. Second, seal up items suspected to be infested in separate bags for laundry treatment (for clothes and bed linens) or vacuum treatment (for non-textile items like stationery and toys). This is to prevent bedbugs from escaping before both treatments. Avoid transferring items from the infested bedroom to other parts of the house without rigorous inspection.
Vacuum thoroughly. The next step is to vacuum the room thoroughly to physically remove all bedbugs and their eggs. Use vacuum machine with disposable dust bag. You may also use the ones with HEPA filters to prevent fine debris from spreading through the exhaust. Vacuum entire floor and target every small section and corner such as floor-wall joints, room corners, carpet edges, bed frames, and other furniture using the vacuum machine’s special attachment or nozzle designed for small crevices. Think like a bedbug and imagine where it can hide. After vacuuming, clean the machine and dispose the contents in a sealed plastic bag immediately.
Use laundry with heat settings. It is important to kill both the existing bedbugs and the eggs. There are several laundry options available to do this. Bedbugs and the eggs on bed linen, pillow cases, and clothes can be killed by washing at 60°C, tumble drying above 40°C, or dry cleaning. Naylor and Boase (2010) did a study to compare laundry settings against bedbugs and eggs, summarised in the table below. Note that not all laundry options available were found to be able to kill the eggs.
Need professional help? For heavy infestations that require professional intervention, especially using controlled chemical applications, you should engage local licensed pest management companies.
In conclusion, bedbug infestation may sound like a scary prospect to deal with, especially when it can happen in your home. However, the adage “prevention is better than cure” is very true and it is easier to keep a look out for bedbugs in your next vacation, than to try remove them from your home afterwards.
© Jo-Lynn Teh-Weisenburger, Entomologist
Jo-Lynn Teh-Weisenburger is an entomologist based in the Hague, the Netherlands. While her specialisation is on tropical insects that affect public health and agriculture, Jo-Lynn’s passion is to help people understand insects. When she is not scrutinising European insects and books about European insects, Jo-Lynn enjoys exploring recipes, yoga moves and foreign cities. Find her on LinkedIn.
Hekker, T.A.M. (2013, April). Bedwantsen, terug van weggeweest. Retrieved May 30, 2017, from http://www.rivm.nl/Documenten_en_publicaties/Algemeen_Actueel/Uitgaven/Infectieziekten_Bulletin/Jaargang_24_2013/April_2013/Inhoud_24_04/Bedwantsen_terug_van_weggeweest
Sanitation. (2015, June 24). Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.bedbugcentral.com/bedbugs101/sanitation
Naylor, R. A., & Boase, C. J. (2010). Practical Solutions for Treating Laundry Infested with Cimex lectularius (Hemiptera: Cimicidae). Journal of Economic Entomology, 103(1), 136-139. doi:10.1603/ec09288
Pest Control Procedures Manual – Bedbugs [Print]. (April 2011). London, United Kingdom: The National Pest Advisory Panel, Charted Institute of Environmental Health.