They creep, they crawl, and they just might be in your hotel room.
And worse, they could be coming home with you.
Bedbug infestations can occur at any time, not just peak travel times. Hiding in cracks and crevices, the bugs are good hitchhikers and could latch onto luggage and other belongings.
"They're not discriminating travelers," said Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association. "They don't discriminate between a first-class resort or a low-rate motel. You could encounter them anywhere."
According to research conducted in 2015 by the NPMA and the University of Kentucky, 74 percent of surveyed pest-control professionals said they'd encountered bedbugs in hotels and motels within the past year. Although this number is second to apartments, condominiums and single-family homes -- 90 percent of the professionals said they had found bedbugs in these places -- it's still pretty high.
"It's not just hotels, for sure," Fredericks added. "It's hotels, vacation cottages, summer rentals at the beach, Airbnbs, even a visit to a relative's house."
Luckily, there are a number of ways to avoid letting the little bloodsuckers become an unfortunate vacation souvenir.
- Inspect your hotel room.
Before settling in, it's worth doing a quick scan of the bed and any couches or armchairs. Look at the folds and seams of the mattress, Fredericks recommended, as little dark stains could be a sign of an infestation. If it's a pretty bad case, you might even be able to see the bugs' castaway shells or pearly white eggs.
- Look closely at wooden headboards.
Although bedbugs are typically associated with clinging to fabric, they can use their claws to grip and climb bed frames as well. peek behind the headboard if possible, as the critters often hide in cracks, according to Michael Potter, an entomology professor at the University of Kentucky.
"The problem is that headboards in many hotels are often quite heavy," Potter said.
Be careful while peeking, though, or you might end up like Brooke Borel, a science journalist and the author of "Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World."
"In one place, I actually took the headboard off the wall," she said, laughing.
- Know what bedbugs look like.
Borel has dealt with three infestations in her time living in New York. It's important to be able to identify the bugs, she said, so you can notify the hotel immediately if you spot them.
"This isn't necessarily fun, but if you find a bug in your bed, pick it up and put it in a plastic bag or one of those glasses they have in your hotel room," she said. "Keep it there so you can have proof that there were bedbugs in the room."
Adult bedbugs are reddish-brown and about a quarter-inch in length, Fredericks said, while the younger ones are smaller and often have a "creamy coloration."
"They're crawling pests," he added. "If you see them jumping or flying, it's definitely not a bedbug."
- Keep your suitcase off the floor.
Although either multiple bedbugs or a mated female would need to stow away to bring an infestation home, it's worth taking precautions, according to Kenneth Haynes, another entomology professor at the University of Kentucky.
"It's all a probability matter," Haynes said, "and you can bias that probability toward avoiding bringing them home by doing those inspections initially."
Borel knows people who avoid picking up the pests by leaving suitcases in the bathtub instead of the main hotel room. Potter said this might be a bit much.
"Traveling is enough of a hassle without all that," he said. "Anything is possible in the world of bedbugs, but everyone has to make a decision about just how obsessive they want to be."
- Unpack immediately.
Bedbugs don't typically live on a person's body -- "They bite people, and then they leave," Fredericks said -- but they can easily cling to your clothes or the fabric of a suitcase. If you think you might have brought back a few unwanted guests, the best thing to do is expose the surfaces to heat. "High heat in the dryer for 30 minutes or so will kill all life stages," Fredericks said.
As for the suitcase? There are luggage heaters invented for this specific purpose, Borel said, though it might be silly to spend big bucks on those. In the summer, there's a simpler solution.
"When it's really hot outside, put that thing in a closed car for a day or two," Potter said. "The [temperature] that a car will heat up to in the summertime if it's 80 degrees outside will probably be enough to kill bedbugs in a suitcase."
- Keep calm and declutter.
After her extensive experience dealing with infestations, Borel knows the critters can be "quite taxing on mental health." Reduce clutter to avoid giving them a place to hide, but if you think they might have found a way in, remember that outside help exists.
"We see and hear horror stories in the news about people that tried to control bedbugs in their home and things went horribly wrong," Fredericks said. "We encourage people to reach out to a professional."