The time has come to talk about one of the most dreaded possibilities when travelling: dealing with bed bugs! These critters have a terrible reputation and for good reason. They’re hard to identify if you’re not actively looking for them, but if you miss them then you’re in for a seriously annoying experience. Bed bugs will leave you itchy, uncomfortable and with a lot of things to clean! So, it’s a good idea to learn a bit more about bed bugs before your travels. Preparation is the best tool!
What are bed bugs?
We’ve all heard a lot about bed bugs and how terrible it can be to have them, but what are they exactly?
Bed bugs are small insects that typically live in crevices in and around beds. They usually stay quiet during the day but come out at night to bite exposed skin and feed on blood. Keep your eyes peeled because even adult bed bugs are small. They’re oval shaped, flat and about grow up to about 5mm long, about the size of an apple seed. The colour of bed bugs can vary between brown, red, and dark yellow.
Don’t forget about the eggs! If you happen to have a magnifying glass with you, finding them will be much easier, but if you don’t, you can still spot them if you look carefully. A helpful tip for searching for the eggs is to use a flashlight. You’re looking for minuscule white eggs, about the size of a pinhead. You won’t see any flying or jumping long distances from bed bugs. They move from host to host by crawling. (Speaking of crawling, bed bugs can be easily spread to other places and people, as they can make a home in any clothing, luggage, bedding, and furniture.)
How can you recognise bed bug bites?
If you’re not sure if you’ve been bitten by bed bugs or something else, look for these defining features:
1. Bites in a straight line or zigzag pattern.
2. Small flat or raised areas that tend to become red, inflamed and blistered.
3. These bites itch!
4. You may feel a slight burning sensation before the bite marks appear.
Something super important to remember is that the symptoms of bites may not appear until the next day or even a few days later and reactions to bites varies from person to person. This means that you should pay attention to any bites you notice that you don’t remember getting, as they could be bed bug bites from days before.
Be aware that some people may not have any reaction at all to bed bug bites. That doesn’t mean you don’t have them! Be sure to check thoroughly for these critters so you don’t become a spreading host.
Other signs you have bed bugs
Bites aren’t the only way to tell that you have bed bugs. There are some other signs that let you know there’s an infestation to be dealt with, including:
- The eggs!
- Small black or rust-coloured spots on the mattress might be bed bugs faeces.
- Bed bug skin shells. That’s right folks, they shed their skin as they grow!
- Blood spots on your sheets. Maybe you crushed one without even realising it.
- A musty scent on your sheets and in your room, in general.
If you notice any of these signs, it’s time to act fast.
How to prevent an encounter with bed bugs in Southeast Asia:
You don’t need to be scared about finding yourself with bed bugs as you make your way around Southeast Asia, just arm yourself with knowledge and a can-do attitude. There are practical things you can do to prevent a bed bug infestation of your belongings.
Choosing a hostel:
When you’re researching hostels bed bugs should be one of the points you evaluate. All you need to do is be clever about your search:
1. Be sure to check out the reviews online of a hostel to see if anyone has recently mentioned bed bugs in their comments. See how long ago their comment was posted and see if the hostel has replied to say that the situation has been dealt with. You don’t have to avoid a hostel just because you see a review mentioning bed bugs as the hostel is not really to blame for a traveller bringing in bed bugs from a previous hostel that may have been lurking in their clothes or their luggage. The most important thing is that the hostel has dealt with the infestation. If you’re unsure, you can always email the hostel and see if you get an adequate response. A bed bug problem shouldn’t ruin the hostel’s business for the rest of time and you should be sympathetic towards them.
2. Both HostelWorld and TripAdvisor remove reviews that mention bed bugs. They do this because they know that a review mentioning the dreaded words ‘bed’ and ‘bugs’ in the same sentence can really hurt a hostel’s business. They say that they always contact the hostel about the issue and only keep the review live if the hostel is knowingly doing nothing to fix the problem. Bed bugs can be eradicated within a matter of days if dealt with properly. Booking.com apparently do allow reviews mentioning bed bugs.
3. Some people suggest that staying in hostels that are just slightly more expensive could save you a lot of trouble. Perhaps they have extra funds to use on pest control, whereas cheaper hostels try to deal with an infestation in a more cost-effective way, meaning the problem could last for weeks.
Some places to be extra vigilant:
- Bed Bugs in Malaysia: be particularly careful in KL Chinatown, it’s been mentioned as having issues.
- Bed Bugs in Cambodia: cheap beach spots like Koh Rong and Sihanoukville have also been called out.
- Bed Bugs in Thailand: cheap digs in the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road have had trouble in the past.
Once you’re at a hostel:
Just because you did your research about the hostel you’re staying at doesn’t mean you shouldn’t remain on standby for the possibility of bed bugs. Stay vigilant! Dramatic? Maybe a bit, but better safe than sorry!
Sleeping bag liner: good or bad idea?
There’s a lot of talk about using a sleeping bag liner when staying in hostels or anywhere else that has a sketchy bedding situation. Some people swear by it for overall cleanliness and possible protection against bites from bed bugs and other critters. Others say it should be avoided since bed bugs might decide to nest in the liner and make their way into your luggage when you transition.
It comes down to your personal preference. If you do decide to use a sleeping bag liner, go for one made of silk. The bed bugs don’t like this material, so while you might still get bitten, they’re less likely to make a home in your liner.
Other useful tips at the hostel:
First and foremost, before you put anything on the bed, let alone sleep on it, you should do a full check. That means taking the time to look under the bed, all throughout the sheets and covers, all around the edges of the mattress, and in every small seam, hole and crevice (their favourite spots). Remember to be on alert for red and blackish spots, which could be blood or poop!
If you find spots, bed bug skin shells, or anything else that screams bugs, ask to move beds right away. Make sure you do a full sweep before settling in, they can even hide in places like light switches! Use a flashlight to search for them. Bed bugs are blind and attracted to heat (like from your body!).
Don’t be confused with termites or sand flies. Termites look different than bed bugs, with three clear divisions on their bodies, and they don’t feed on your blood, but on wood. You’ll be able to spot the differences between bed bug and sand fly bites by noticing if the pattern is random (sand flies) or in a straight line (bed bugs).
One very cautious traveller gave a foolproof tip about avoiding bed bugs during travel, saying ‘In any questionable room I never go near the bed unless I am in only underwear to sleep. I keep my bag packed and elevated on a table or something. That way if there are bed bugs I throw away my underwear, wash myself well in the shower and can leave no problem!’
You’ve got them! OH NO! How can you get rid of them?
Breathe and don’t panic! You can take care of this situation. Here is some helpful advice for travellers dealing with bed bugs:
- Many travellers suggest that you wash all of your clothes in boiling water or extremely high temperatures. (A standard wash will not be sufficient to rid your belongings of bed bugs.) Make sure you wash everything, especially your backpack and any other baggage.
- Some travellers suggest a combination of bleach and hot water to clean everything.
- If you realise your bed is infested, spray isopropanol alcohol all over the bedding and bed itself. It’s best if you can manage to spray bed bugs directly. This will help kill them.
- Another way to kill them is by putting all your belongings (clothes, bedding, baggage) into large plastic bags and filling the bags with a store-bought bug killer.
- If you’re not able to get hold of a bug killer, the next best thing to do is tie all your belongings in plastic bags and leave them in the sun for a few of days.
The reality is that getting rid of bed bugs is difficult. It’s safest to throw things away if you can’t deal with them properly.
When you’ve moved on from the site of the crime, AKA the hostel where you got the bed bugs, give all your belongings one more really hot wash and dry before you move to a new hostel. You don’t want to be the one starting an infestation at a new hostel – it won’t make you very popular and it’s up to travellers to be honest about this sort of thing, to prevent them from spreading around Southeast Asia.
What to do when you return home from backpacking?
Once you return from your backpacking trip, resist the urge to plough straight into your house and drop all your bags on the floor. Your mum will go mad if you bring these critters into the house!
Instead, leave your bags outside and it’s a bonus if it’s the dead of winter, since bed bugs will die in temperatures at or below -18 degrees Celsius (0 degrees Fahrenheit). When you’ve had time to take a breather after your trip home, bag everything up and wash it all one more time.
To wrap it up…
At the end of the day, bed bugs are more of an inconvenience than anything else. The most effective approach to bed bugs is prevention, but if you do find yourself with bites and boiling all your belongings, just remember that this too shall pass!
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