Last Thursday, health officials tipped off by an overly-concerned mother that her daughter flying-in from Africa may have picked up a contagious disease, placed a 2-hour quarantine on a Delta plane in Chicago. What was presumed to be a possible case of monkey pox evidenced by a rash on the passenger’s skin turned out to be nothing more than probable bed bug bites.
Monkeypox infection appears as a rash that consists of raised, blister-like bumps, and is usually accompanied by fever, headache and lymph node swelling. Bed bug bites, however, can cause a swollen and reddened area that may or may not be itchy, and without the other symptoms of monkeypox.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, monkeypox is a rare and sometimes fatal disease similar to smallpox that occurs primarily in central and western Africa. Monkeypox is contracted through direct contact with infected animals or their bodily fluids, and can spread among humans through fluids and contaminated clothes or bedding.
In this case, potential bed bug-contaminated clothes in the traveler’s luggage may be the endnote for her quarantine ordeal and one that many other travelers will face this summer.
To help prevent bringing bed bugs as unwanted souvenirs from your next trip, the following biology lesson and tips on bed bug removal from your luggage will keep you and your family bed bug free.
Bed Bug Basic Biology
Bed bugs are oval, flattened, brown, and wingless insects approximately 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch long. Young bed bugs are much smaller at approximately 1/16 of an inch when they first hatch and are colorless until they begin feeding. After an adult bed bug has taken a blood meal from an unsuspecting traveler, its color will change from brown to a dark purple-red and will grow in size morphing into a more elongated cigar-like shape. The presence of bed bugs in a hotel room may be noted by fecal spotting consisting of digested blood and skin castings the bugs shed while growing.
Bed bugs are active reproducers and according to one expert if 40 bed bugs are released into a room, their population will reach over 5,000 bugs in 6 months.
Bed Bug Hiding Places
Bed bugs will seek out beds, clothing and other areas where they sense a potential blood meal may be present. However, visually checking a bed before lying down is no guarantee that your bed or room is bug-free as bed bugs have a penchant for hiding in dark, recessed areas such as cracks and crevices in floors, closets, mattresses and…your luggage were clothing is stored. However, while many are tempted to throw out or burn their luggage in cases of suspected bed bug infestation rather than risk bringing it into their home, experts say that such measures are unnecessary as long as precautions are taken.
Bed Bug Precaution Tips
Tip #1: Bag it
Packing your clothes in zip lock bags before embarking on a trip is a good way to keep bed bugs out of your clothing during travel. Furthermore, placing color-sorted soiled clothing back into the zip lock bags before returning home limits the chances that you will deposit bed bugs in your home. Upon returning home, leave your suitcase outside and carry the pre-sorted clothing directly to the clothes washer before opening.
Tip #2: Wash and dry on high
Heat is your friend when it comes to bedbugs. When washing, set the washer and dryer cycles for the hottest settings that the fabric can withstand. If some articles of clothing cannot take high temperatures, consider going to the dry cleaner and let them know about your bed bug concerns with your clothing.
Tip #3: Skip insecticides for elbow grease
Suitcases pose a special problem as they typically do not fit in washers very well and provide lots of crevices for bed bugs to hide in. Spraying with insecticides can be effective, but may also cause staining and leave behind chemical odors that you will not want on your clothing during your next trip. Experts advise hand-washing suitcases outside the house using soap and the hottest water possible. A target temperature of 100°F to 120°F should be sufficient to kill all bed bug life forms from eggs to adults. Use a scrub brush along the seams and folds to ensure that you are getting to hidden bugs.
Tip #4: Heat or freeze
For luggage or other items that cannot be washed, you may want to consider heating or freezing the bed bugs to death. If the item’s materials can handle it and are not easily combustible, some experts recommend placing the items in an oven heated to a temperature of 120-150 degrees Fahrenheit. Some studies have shown that a 2-hour core exposure at 120°F should be considered as a minimum target temperature for heat treatments-the hotter the temperature, the shorter the “baking” time.
Freezing is another option for items that cannot be washed. However, using the home freezer takes longer than baking it in the oven as a minimum of 23°F must be maintained for at least 5 days.
The thing to remember (aside from safety) is that with heating or freezing, the entire item must reach the temperatures and exposure times recommended to ensure all stages of bed bugs and their eggs are being adequately exposed to result in complete extermination.
While following the tips with every trip may seem to be more hassle than the perceived risk of picking up bed bugs at your hotel or resort this summer, consider the cost and inconvenience if your house or apartment were to become home to these unwanted guests.