Blood-sucking souvenirs

Krysta Levac
23 January 2012

As far as vacation souvenirs go, bed bugs suck — literally. Infestations of these blood-sucking insects are on the rise, and they can easily hitch a ride home in your luggage. Here’s a crash course in bed bug biology and some tips to avoid becoming an all-you-can-eat blood buffet.

Did you know? The resurgence of bed bugs is blamed on increased international travel and insecticide resistance.

Adult bed bugs are the size, shape and colour of an apple seed. Immature bugs, called nymphs, look like smaller versions of adults. Nymphs shed their exoskeletons (hard shell-like skins on insects) five times before reaching adulthood, a process called molting. Bed bugs are nocturnal and they locate sleeping victims by detecting exhaled carbon dioxide and body heat. After finding a prime patch of skin, they spend five to 10 minutes slurping blood.

How is it possible to sleep through a bed bug attack? The answer lies in the bed bug’s spit, which contains an anesthetic and an anticoagulant. The mouthpiece of the bed bug is called a proboscis and works like a sharp two-way straw. When the proboscis pierces skin and finds a juicy capillary, bed bug saliva flows into the blood vessel, and the anesthetic numbs the area while the anticoagulant keeps the blood from clotting too quickly.

Did you know? Bed bugs are not known to transmit disease.

Since hotels don’t advertise their “bed bug status”, bring a flashlight on your vacation to help you inspect the seams of your hotel room’s mattress, and peek behind the headboard and nightstands. Look for adult bed bugs and molted exoskeletons. Bed bugs struggle to crawl over smooth surfaces, so keep your luggage in the bathtub overnight to discourage hitchhikers. To kill any bugs on your clothes, bake them using high heat in the dryer for at least 20 minutes. It’s also a good idea to vacuum your luggage after a trip.

Did you know? You are just as likely to find bed bugs in a five-star hotel as in a one-star hotel.

If you are unlucky enough to find bed bugs in your home, call an experienced pest management company because these insects are hard to eradicate. Adult bed bugs can survive for a year without feeding — a fact that is both amazing and deeply disturbing.

Learn More

A practical video about avoiding bed bugs when you travel

For more information about bed bug biology and how to protect yourself:

Article first published March 8, 2011.

Krysta Levac

After an undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph, I earned a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from Cornell University in 2001. I spent 7 years as a post-doctoral fellow and research associate in stem cell biology at Robarts Research Institute at Western University in London, ON. I currently enjoy science writing, Let's Talk Science outreach, and volunteering at my son's school. I love sharing my passion for science with others, especially children and youth. I am also a bookworm, a yogi, a quilter, a Lego builder and an occasional "ninja spy" with my son.

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