Avoid Bedbugs when Traveling in Southeast Asia

Their bites are a backpacker's nightmare...here's how to steer clear!

Bedbug on fabric
Courtesy of dblight/Getty Images

Once only a concern of travelers frequenting hostels and dank budget hotels, bedbugs have recently upgraded to higher standards. A surge in bedbug infestations has been reported in five-star hotels around the U.S. and Europe, department stores, hospitals, and the homes of people who never travel internationally.

At one time bedbugs were thought completely eradicated from North America. Theories as to why bedbugs are on the rise again vary, however most experts agree that their growing resistance to insecticides plays a big role in their resurgence. Other factors including a global increase in world travel and the importing of cheap goods have contributed to the rise; bedbug eggs may even be present on new clothes waiting to be sold.

Southeast Asian beds now contend with more travelers sporting the rash-like, red welts caused by bedbugs. While avoiding bedbugs is partly a matter of luck, knowing what to look for will certainly give you more of a fighting chance!

Getting to Know the Enemy

Bedbugs are small -- reaching around the length of your smallest fingernail at maturity. Oval-shaped and reddish-brown, they congregate and hide in obscure places such as mattress seams, under couch cushions, and even carpet. Bedbugs are extreme survivalist -- they can go a full year without feeding at all -- and can survive freezing temperatures down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bedbugs are noiseless and nocturnal; they bite much the same way that a mosquito does by using a piercing tube. You may not feel a bedbug's bite -- especially while asleep -- because they first inject an anesthetic into their unlucky victim. Fortunately, unlike mosquito bites, bedbug welts do not currently spread diseases.

Avoiding Bedbugs in Southeast Asia

Whether hostel bunk, guest house, or lavish hotel, always check the mattress as soon as you check in. While bedbugs can hide in other places, they prefer to stay close to their food, in this case, you! Begin by looking at the sheets and pillows for small blood stains, an indicator that someone has already been attacked.

Next, remove the sheets and look for wet, dark spots along the mattress seams, buttons, and especially the tag. Check the gap between the headboard and the mattress as well as under the mattress itself. Bedbugs are fast enough to avoid eyes, however, you may see their translucent skins or wet fecal matter left behind. If the infestation is bad enough, you may smell something sickly-sweet and rotting.

If any indication of previous bedbug activity, your best bet is to change hotels immediately rather than move to a new room. Budget hotels in Southeast Asia will be reluctant to provide a refund, but remember that taking a small loss is better than the expense of eradicating bedbugs for months to come.

If there are doubts when checking into a budget hotel in Southeast Asia, consider paying for just one night, then extend once you are convinced the room is clean.

How Not to Take Bedbugs Home

The dream of every bedbug is to catch a free ride back to a good home. Clothing, backpacks, suitcases -- any fabric with small nooks and crannies will provide free transportation. Start by always keeping your bags off of the bed and even the floor if possible. Do not put clothing on the ground; hang up jackets or other items not washed regularly.

Many laundries in Southeast Asia do not use drying machines; washing and line-drying are not enough to kill bedbugs. Driers must reach a temperature of 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius) to kill bedbugs.

When returning home from a trip in Southeast Asia, quarantine your bags and clothes by putting them in the basement or garage - do not take them to the bedroom to unpack! Wash and dry everything thoroughly including jacket, shoes, and day bag. Thoroughly vacuum backpacks and other items that cannot be easily washed.

If returning home in the summer, an old trick is to place your luggage in the trunk of a parked car for several days -- temperatures can reach high enough inside to destroy bedbug eggs. Cold temperatures are not very effective for killing bedbugs, heat is required.

Remember that bedbugs can go a year without feeding; just because your luggage has sat unused for several months does not mean that it is safe!

What to Do If a Bedbug Bites You

Losing our place at the top of the food chain to something so small and filthy carries a certain stigma. While observing the tips above will help, unlucky people can still pick up bedbugs simply by sitting on a couch in reception. Seeing a bite or two on your body is no cause for alarm.

Bedbug bites typically come in clustered lines -- many at a time -- appearing on the shoulders, arms, legs, or back. Unfortunately, bites do not appear for several days after the attack, making it difficult to determine the source if you have been moving frequently.

Bedbug bites are not dangerous and typically go away on their own in around a week. The real threat comes from scratching bedbug bites into open sores that attract infection. Some people have a reaction to bedbug bites and develop a rash of swollen welts; over-the-counter antihistamines will help.

If you do end up with bedbug bites, don't panic and do not scratch -- they heal on their own! The biggest priority should be to avoid spreading bedbugs to other travelers or bringing them home to family and friends.