The Truth About Bedbugs

It’s become a rite of summer for the talking heads on the local news programs: a hysteria-inducing hotel bedbug epidemic story. The teary tales of vacations ruined, the zooms on the tiny red welts, and the infographic of the life cycle of the tiny invaders whose Latin name, Cimex lectularius, makes them sound like villains in a summer blockbuster.

It makes for must-see TV, but what should you believe? Let’s exterminate some of the common misconceptions:

1. It is a new problem. Actually, no.
 Bedbugs like to live in wood and fabric, close to their food supply, which is us. They are long-term tenants, having infested homes and inns for thousands of years.

“So what has changed?” asks Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an urban entomologist at Cornell University. We’ve started paying attention to bedbugs. “Public awareness skyrocketed,” she says. Thanks to news stories, TV reports, and blogs dedicated to Cimex sightings, just about every bedbug report is treated with only slightly less excitement than a bird flu outbreak.

In fact, says Gangloff-Kaufmann, the bugs weren’t as bad in 2012 as they were in 2010, but the coverage continues, making it seem to many travelers as if bedbugs are on an unstoppable march to conquer our planet.

2. You will bring bedbugs home from your travels. You might, if you happen to sleep in a bed with bedbugs, and if you leave your clothes and luggage on the bed, and if those bedbugs decide to climb from the infested bed to your luggage, and if you unpack your luggage on your bed, and if the bugs disembark and set up house in your bed. That’s a lot of ifs.

A quick inspection of the mattress and behind the headboard of the hotel room should reveal bedbugs’ shed skins, eggs, and hatched eggs even in daylight (when bugs are not active), and if that doesn’t give them away, then the telltale overripe raspberry odor will.

For those with an overabundance of caution, Louis Sorkin, an entomologist with New York’s American Museum of Natural History, suggests not putting clothes and luggage on your bed when traveling. Instead, he advises, “hang up the coat and place luggage in the bathroom when you first arrive.” And when you return home, put your luggage in the garage and your traveling clothes in the laundry immediately.

3. Bedbug bites are painful and cause disease. No and no. Half of the hotel guests who get bitten don’t even know it; the other half may experience some itching and skin inflammation for a few days.

According to Jerome Goddard, a professor of medical and veterinary entomology at Mississippi State University and a leading bedbug expert, “It’s no worse than a mosquito.”

And hope for a bedbug over a mosquito when it comes to carrying disease. Bedbugs have been studied extensively as possible carriers for everything from hepatitis to HIV. The result? Nada. I asked Goddard if he’d ever been bitten by one of the bugs in his laboratory, to which he replied, “How do you think I’ve fed them all these years?”

4. If they’re in one room, then they’re in every room of the hotel. Wrong. “In many hotels, the infestations are limited,” says Michael Potter, a professor of urban and medical entomology at the University of Kentucky. “Just because you see a hotel named in a bedbug registry website doesn’t mean all the rooms are infested.”

As a matter of fact, some hotels may have only one or two rooms affected by the blood-sucking insects, so fleeing the hotel may be an irrational move if you see evidence of the bugs. Instead of overreacting, insist politely on an insect-free room.

5. Online bedbug reviews are trustworthy. Not really. Reports are often inaccurate and outdated. Even attempts to quantify bedbug activity in a more scientific way often fall short.

Consider exterminator Orkin’s annual bedbug report, which in 2012 crowned Chicago as America’s bedbug capital, followed by Detroit and Los Angeles. According to Orkin, the least bedbuggy cities are Springfield, Illinois; Portland, Oregon; and Sioux City, Iowa. Problem is, Chicago is a major city with lots of people (and Orkin branches). Sioux City? Not so much. So it’s folly to use an online database of bedbug sightings or even a more scientific survey of insect sightings to plan your vacation.

You’ll find plenty of jittery hotel guests this summer who think they’re bound to sleep with bedbugs. One commonly cited survey by pest management company Steritech claims a quarter of the hotel rooms in the United States needed treatment for bedbugs, but few bother to note that even if rooms were deemed to need treatment, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were infested, nor that guests would have been bitten. And bear in mind, these pest-control folks have a product to sell. Kind of like, ahem, the news media.

Truth is, these insects can pop up just about anywhere, not only in hotels. They’re in apartments, churches, hospitals, laundromats, movie theaters, and offices right in your neighborhood. Wherever there’s blood, you’ll find the bugs. There’s really no escaping them this summer or any summer. What can you escape from? The hype. So switch the channel or turn off the TV and relax. You’re on vacation.

Christopher Elliott serves as resident consumer advocate and ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler, and writes the “Insider” column for the magazine. Follow his story on Twitter @elliottdotorg.


  1. shannon
    United States
    July 3, 2014, 12:11 am

    I also stayed in a hotel where the room had bed bugs. I feel for anyone that has ever been through this. I feel sick everyday. The waiting is awful to know if you brought them home. I don’t even want to go home anymore. My safe haven is now pure he’ll. You better believe that if they do show up the hotel will be paying for all the expenses related. I currently check my bed 85 million times a day it seems. My fingers are raw from pulling the seems and looking for dander and shells and bugs. I sleep with a flashlight. I think I am going crazy. I itch everywhere! I do not wish this experience on my worst enemy.

  2. esme
    June 26, 2014, 4:58 am

    Hi Kelli —

    They took about 20 days to get from my luggage to my bed (about 40 feet away). Buy bedbug monitors ( to put around your bed frame legs. They will trap bugs and notify you if you have them before they invade your bed.

  3. tina
    June 18, 2014, 2:54 pm

    I hate these stinking bugs!!!!! Had them for years now and can’t get rid of them every time I think I have they show their ugly heads again. We have bought 3 different beds and we are to embarrassed to call for professional help.

  4. Kelli
    toledo, ohio
    June 3, 2014, 2:10 pm

    I recently stayed in a hotel over night. I came home and had HUGE itchy red welts all over my arms. I called the hotel and they checked the room I stayed in and sure enough. Bed Bugs! I did not take precautions when bringing my things home. I put my clothes and my bag on the bed at the hotel. It was a nice hotel. I had never encountered them before. I didn’t think. NOW, I am freaking out. I have been home for a little over a week and havent seen any at all. No encounters. How long does it take to notice? Terminix told me it would take a few weeks to be able to tell if I brought them home? I am super paranoid about whats going to happen and what to do! However, the Hotel manager was incredibly nice and apologetic after admitting they had them. He said that they will absolutely pay for everything I need regarding it. So I just sit and wait to see if they have infested in my home?

  5. Beatris
    London, UK
    May 20, 2014, 6:57 am

    I’ve also encountered bed bugs during my vacation. It was quite unpleasant experience and it triggered my interest towards these critters. Since then I’ve read a lot of info about bed bugs and how to avoid them. I have even prepared a small guide for avoiding bed bugs during a trip:

  6. Pamie
    April 27, 2014, 3:06 am

    What I am unsure of is can you take bed bugs home from work if you work in a hotel that has an infested room? I got a few bites on me but I’m not sure If they are from bed bugs. I have had an infestation of ants in the back part of my house that was added on. I went all crazy and spray pesticide everywhere but I have a toddler so I really need to make sure. I haven’t seen anything. But honestly I only have a bed in my room no headboard or anything I don’t have an end table or dresser. My room is bare. So I don’t know where they would hide. We found bed bugs in one room where I work and I work in housekeeping. I am terrified of getting the ugly critters. Im siking myself out! I am constantly itching everywhere due to thinkin bout the bugs! Also A family member just got headlice and I AM TRIPPING!

  7. paresh shah
    April 25, 2014, 3:28 am

    Mumbai is also in trap of bedbugs including surrounding areas due to slums who develop more bedbugs

  8. Derby Schafer
    Las Vegas Nevada
    March 25, 2014, 6:39 pm

    As a Pest Control Owner whom deals with Bed Bugs nearly every day let me share a few thoughts from my own experiences. First Off Bed Bugs didn’t disappear rather changes happened. When I first started off nearly 30 years ago it was more common for Pest Control to be done Correctly. What I am referring to is that Multi-Family, Apartments and Hotels/Motels used to have Monthly Service to all the units. However around 20 years or so changes where made which those that complained or were noticed by
    Maids/Maintenance/Etc… then service was done. Not to mention when the economy went south for most of us over the last 8-10 years ours services were dropped and used as needed. These two factors have enhanced the overall Bed Bug Success. And often we do get calls and the person that does indeed have bed bugs think this will be done at $50.00 to $99.00 for Bed bug Service. When they learn the true price of a Quality Bed bug service some are shocked and often either attempt to do it themselves, do nothing or worse hire someone that just wants to collect yet not provide for what they need. We see results because our business is 99.8% Multi Family and when the services are done correctly the first time our success rate is close to 99%. It does require correct tenant co-operation along with being fully prepared. Yet when we have those that do not comply or simply expect our Magic Wand to work miracles failure will always occur. I know that any Apartments or Multi-Family that has a Monthly Service typically either zero to less than 2% bed bug issues again this is when all units are being treated and inspected on a Monthly Basis. House Keeping is also an issue and those that do clean and disinfect along with maintaining excellent house keeping are also far less likely to have problems or re-occurring issues. Some of the things that you can do is not try to handle bed bugs on your own. Hire a professional, hire someone that has ample and plenty of experience. Be prepared for some hard work initially and of coarse follow all directions regardless of what you feel or think you need to do. Yes they are and shall continue to become more common. And when not if they do become something you are dealing with don’t wait….act sooner rather than later. Good Luck and know that no matter where you live their will be a professional that knows how and will take care of you but it is partnership and you too must do your part. if you would like further information and prep sheets for maximum effectiveness. Derby Schafer-Owner A Access Denied Pest Control

  9. Edwin
    Southern Fairfield County
    January 9, 2014, 10:36 am

    My fiancé had a community meeting she was obliged to attend and found out the meeting was about bedbugs in the community. Supposedly, some attendees were a couple of neighbors of hers that had previously had bed bugs infestations, that had already treated them and got rid of them and another that had some dead bed bugs and that apparently has none (had her home inspected and all) but that will be receiving chemical treatment just in case (due to the dead bed bugs found). Since that same night she has been scratching all over and can’t help thinking she might have gotten bed bugs. Is it possible to have brought them with her from a two hour meeting at this neighbors home that stated she had inspected and was sure not to have them, maybe getting them from the other attendees? I have seen the itchy patches she states and I can’t see anything but she is really freaking out.

  10. ella
    January 9, 2014, 7:16 am

    This article omits one piece of CRUCIAL information: the banning of DDT. Bed bugs were once a thing of the past until the chemical DDT was banned, added with cheap international travel bed bug infestations have exploded!

    I know of one woman who got a bed bug infestation from a second hand book. It took months and months of treatment to eradicate them and left her depressed and paranoid about them. Now she is constantly on her guard.

    Some people don’t have such a bad time getting rid of them, but some have a nightmare time. Bed bugs are bad news and they are spreading faster. That’s the reality. Something more needs to be done to reverse things.

  11. John
    December 31, 2013, 8:10 pm

    I think the author of this article really didn’t have enough knowledge of bed bugs before he wrote this article.

    “2. You will bring bedbugs home from your travels. You might, if you happen to sleep in a bed with bedbugs, and if you leave your clothes and luggage on the bed, and if those bedbugs decide to climb from the infested bed to your luggage, and if you unpack your luggage on your bed, and if the bugs disembark and set up house in your bed. That’s a lot of ifs.”
    You really don’t have to unpack your luggage on your bed for bed bugs to ” set up a house in a bed”, bed bugs travel towards your bed even there were not initially on your bed.

    ” It is a new problem. Actually, no.
 Bedbugs like to live in wood and fabric, close to their food supply, which is us. They are long-term tenants, having infested homes and inns for thousands of years.”
    Bed bugs did largely disappear in North America for many years until recent year with more international travel it made a come back.

    I think the author was lack of some common knowledge about bedbugs. There are so many other articles on the internet with so much better information. Even some of the comments here from the victims seem to have much better understanding of the issue. Unfortunately, once you had it, you almost learnt to become an expert in order to deal with it.

  12. Ms Blair
    Detroit, MI
    November 21, 2013, 5:59 pm

    Hi everyone like mostly everyone I been bitten by this bed bugs to bout 5years ago I never heard of the bugs but from the saying don’t let the bed bugs bite, well now I know there real.. I got them from a bed and breakfast hotel, and took them home, a co-worker told me how to get rid of them which worked, I had to use 91% alcohol everywhere on the beds couches, then washed and throw out clothes which had the bugs in them, wash your belongs in hot water twice, then dry them on the full dry, buy 8 bottles of 91% alcohol and spray it on your mattress the whole bottle, and on the head broads rells in the back of the heads broads on the under the mattress, on the top of the box fame under the box fame, and vaccine your carpet everywhere there is carpet under the bed as well, and change the bag after you are done take it outside when doing so, spray the basebroads in your room as well with the 91% alochol as well they crew there to, and if you really have a bad infestation DE will kill them off as well, I’ve use everything I’m telling you about, this will be very messy but it works, put the DE (Diatomaceous Earth (food grade) everywhere on the carpet in the couches, in your bed on the base broads, inside the plugs in the wall, on your windows everywhere you see the bed bugs, this stuff works Diatomacous Earth will cost you about $ 20 for a 10lb bag, God bless you all… hope this is helpful to any and everyone who reads it.

  13. CoVo
    Los Angeles
    October 29, 2013, 5:50 pm

    I think I have bed bug bites from a hotel I stayed at a couple nights ago. I’m freaking out. My clothes and luggage were on the bed at various points. Then I came home and some of my clothes were on the floor. Now I’m imagining bed bugs are crawling in my carpet, on my furniture, etc. I feel itchy all over. I hate bugs and this is really upsetting.

  14. Teresa
    North Carolina
    October 13, 2013, 1:23 am

    bought existing home 3 months ago that was infested. We had no idea. It has been hell. The other writers who have had infestations are right. The physcological effects are overwhelming. The effects on children who welt up is almost unbearable. We’ve had numerous chemical treatments, a heat treatment, and a bed-bug sniffing dog and we stil have major infestation in my son’s bedroom wall. Do not take this lightly. Especially if you are buying an existing home. Everyone we have spoken with at the exterminating company says the problem has really grown in North Carolina. Take precautions.

  15. Sayed Mohammed
    Mumbai. India.
    August 15, 2013, 9:27 am

    Thought provoking but no solution. You could have given some preventive measures & some exterminating tips! Hope to hear from you with your worldwide experience.

  16. Michael
    August 5, 2013, 6:12 pm

    The above article downplays the issue dramatically. My wife and I brought bedbugs back home from a holiday. Exterminators were never successful and only filled our house with chemicals. It took us two years and two house moves and the disposal of much furniture and belongings to leave them behind. It cost us thousands of dollars and countless nights sleep. We both responded badly to the bites: big red itchy disfiguring welts that lasted weeks. We hadn’t began a family at the time, but the thought now of bringing them home to infest your children is too terrible to bear.

    We have encountered them since in other travels, but we now know how to quarantine and sterilise our gear. In those cases the Hotels were indescribably rude.

    Be very, very wary of bed bugs. Read what you can about them and know how to minimise the very real risk. If you encounter them on your travels: flee!

  17. Jessie
    August 3, 2013, 11:45 pm

    I currently have them after bringing them home from an idiot friend of a friend who failed to tell us she had bedbugs until after we got to her house for a get together. I cannot begin to tell you the psychological toll it’s taking on me. I’ve only had a few bites that haven’t swelled up dramatically but I’m at my wits end. I feel horrible for what this is doing to my family. Seems to be isolated to my room but I’m so afraid of these parasites spreading elsewhere. I’m at a point where I don’t even want to come home.

  18. esme
    August 2, 2013, 7:57 pm

    I have been bitten by bed bugs when traveling, I have brought bed bugs home from traveling. Unfortunately, I had to become a quasi-expert on them.

    I’ve learned to accept that, statistically, with the amount I travel, I will be bitten once in awhile. I focus instead on not bring them home. The precautions I take:

  19. Caelyn Woolward
    August 2, 2013, 6:22 am

    This article makes light of bed bugs, and I don’t think that is the case. You say there’s a lot of “ifs”, and maybe there are, but that doesn’t explain why so many more people are coming forward complaining about these pests. It may have to do with exposure, but I have heard about A LOT more personal cases of bed bugs recently. My colleague wrote an interesting article on How To Avoid Bed Bugs While Travelling which I think does the epidemic way more justice. As for not getting ill, you try dealing with bed bugs day in and day out, not getting any sleep, having scars on your body because you’ve been ravaged by these creatures who, btw, DO suck your blood and send whatever germs they’ve picked up into your blood stream, and then you’ll have more of an idea of the experiences. Ps. They’re not that easy to get rid of once they start breeding.

  20. Angie
    Shandong, China
    August 2, 2013, 4:27 am

    i’m thinking, why there’s few bedbugs in China… i travelled a lot in China, but i didn’t seem to recall having encountered bedbugs nor heard about people complaining about them, although the hotels’ conditions were just plain, and not as advanced as those in many European countries… is it because we overuse pesticides?

  21. Carol Lark
    Los Angeles
    August 2, 2013, 1:58 am

    I’ve traveled all over the USA, Europe and beyond , for 30 years and never ran into a bed bug–even though I stay in budget hotels. However, I do know what they look like, and as a kid I once slept in a run-down hotel that was crawling with bedbugs! We woke our group leader in the middle of the night and he told us to sleep with the lights on and they would go back in their holes–which I guess worked, but by that time, I already had some very painful, itchy bites, and one eye swolled shut. I liked the Texax woman’s suggestion that heat kills bed bugs, and if you find them right away you might save yourself expensive fumigation.

  22. Carolyn Charney
    Bardonia, NY
    August 1, 2013, 5:08 pm

    One poster says that she was covered in welts on any part of her body that was not under the covers. I’m confused now. When they bite, isn’t likely to be on parts of the body that are deep under the covers?

  23. Nate Whilk
    August 1, 2013, 4:04 pm

    “And bear in mind, these pest-control folks have a product to sell. Kind of like, ahem, the news media.”

    So does National Geographic. Not in this article, of course.

  24. Hawaii Innkeeper
    August 1, 2013, 3:45 pm

    The few complaints that we receive about bed bugs invariably come from guests that brought them from one of the beds they slept in since leaving home. Replacing a $2000 mattress and calling in the pest control service is part of the cost of doing business, but if everybody would follow the advice in this column, at least the infestation would not spread as quickly.

  25. momthecoach
    Austin Tx
    August 1, 2013, 3:10 pm

    We had a bedbug infestation about 4 years ago. As near as we can tell it was the result of a sleepover my son had. For weeks he had itchy red bites all over his shins and calves. Couldn’t figure out WHAT they were (although small drops of blood were always on the sheets) and eventually put it down to the cats sleeping on his bed and bringing in fleas – although we never saw any fleas on the cats – and exiled them from the bedrooms. The “infestation” never spread. It was localized specifically to the top bunk of my sons’ bunkbeds. My other son, in the lower bunk, never got a bite. No evidence of blood on his sheets. Whatever it was, was only happening on the top bunk.

    Fastforward 3 weeks. My parents came to visit, and while moving the bunkbed to make room for a blowup mattress for them, my dad looks at the wall, smushes a tiny speck with his thumb, and says “How long’ve you had bedbugs?” Completely nonchalantly. Turns out he know what they are primarily because while he was a kid everyone had bedbugs all the time (small, rural, poor town).

    At his direction, we put all the stuffed animals and bedding in black plastic contractors bag and tied them up. Hauled that and the mattresses to the back yard and laid across the top of the boys’ fort. Summer time in Texas did the rest. Inside the house, we used powdered boric acid everywhere. The bed frame, the wooden flooring (concentrating between the planks), the air ducts (which we closed up and sealed with duct tape), the footboards, the chair rails. Closed up that room and left it for a week.

    Washed all the bedding and stuffed animals in hot water and dried it all.

    And that was the end of the bed bugs. Honestly – it never spread, and it cost very little to eradicate.

  26. lily
    August 1, 2013, 1:35 pm

    Completely agree with commenters “k” and Karen Cummings. I had bedbugs last summer and would not wish the experience on my worst enemy. They were much, much worse than mosquito bites – itchier, bigger, and lasted two weeks on me before subsiding. I counted after the first week of the infestation and had over fifty bites. My boyfriend was only slightly affected – it definitely differs from person to person. But the psychological trauma of dealing with exterminators, not being able to sleep comfortably, and the whole six-week ordeal is NOT something to be understated, which I’m afraid is what this article did. People shouldn’t freak out and overreact, but everyone should be cautious about bedbugs.

  27. Beth
    Roanoke, VA
    August 1, 2013, 10:54 am

    I bought a “gent;y used” comforter at a sale a few weeks ago, and, foolishly, put it on my bed without washing it first (it had been “sanitized” before my purchase). Behold, bedbugs! Now I’m covered with weeping, itchy bites (peroxide and then menthol creams help somewhat) and the comforter is in the trash. Wonder how far the bugs have spread in the house, and how long it will take to get rid of them.

  28. Sharon Deloy
    Northwest Arkansas, USA
    August 1, 2013, 10:44 am

    Really? Bed bugs took a vacation and now they;re back?

    I am 80 years old and have never even seen a bedbug, much less be bitten by one. Here we are bothered by fleas (get on our dogs), mosquitoes (remedy – don’t sit outside in the twilight where they are likely to be) and ticks. If I get bitten by a tick, I will have the scab until fall.

    After reading the excellent article, I am relieved.

  29. k
    August 1, 2013, 10:34 am

    The reaction to bed bug bites differs from person to person. IMO, it is better to be someone who does get a red welt after being bitten and fed on than someone who does not.

    People who have the tell-tale red welts discover the infestations much soon and can have the issue dealt with before it become a full-blown problem that spreads through the home or dwelling.

    Having survived a bed bug infestation; I can tell everyone out their that’s never been through it that I’d welcome roaches, fleas, mosquitoes, mice in my home over a reinfestation of bed bugs.

    The psychological trauma, the preparation work in order to have an exterminator come (everything must be packed following very specific guidelines), the financial costs, and the duration of time one lives w/the bed bugs and the treatments (min. 2 month — max ???) is enough to driven a person “buggy.”

    The idea that these little vampires are just waiting for you to get snuggly and sleepy to come out and feed on you in your own snuggly, comfy bed, is hard to shake even after they’ve supposedly been eradicated.

    I believe there are lots of people out there who’ve no idea they have a current infestation.

    The best defense if a good offense.

    Make the investment of good, scientifically tested bed bug mattress, box spring and pillow encasements, and call your local experiences PCO to ask what other preventative measures you can take to avoid them.

  30. shahrukh
    karacki pakistan
    August 1, 2013, 5:35 am

    this channel is very intresting and they gave me a lot of knowlage for science etc

  31. Eric
    August 1, 2013, 1:34 am

    There is a pretty sure way to make sure bed-bugs don’t come home with you. Leave your suitcase in the car for a day or two. Bed-bugs really aren’t that hard to kill, they’re just really good at hiding.

    A temperature of 119 F will kill a bed bug. Since the inside of your car will get way hotter than that on a sunny summer day, leaving your bag in the car should kill them. Just remember to take any aerosol cans out of the bag so they don’t explode.

  32. Amanda AngloAdventure
    July 31, 2013, 3:01 pm

    I believe a lot about bed bugs have been overblown, but not completely, as the above poster pointed out, they were big before (where the bed bug song comes from) and then they went away.
    And now they’re back. That said, I travel a lot and I don’t think I’ve ever even been bitten. It does seem to be a lot of hype and warning, though I would HATE to infest my apartment.

  33. Karen Cummings
    July 31, 2013, 2:59 pm

    I differ with you on your statement that bedbug bites are like mosquito bites. I got bitten by them when I slept at someone’s house a number of years ago — seems they had been brought back from Europe, but the home owner was not sensitive to the bites. I, on the other hand, ended up covered in two- to three-inch wide, raised red, incredibly itchy welts on any part of my body that was not under the covers. The welts took at least a week to subside after I resorted to taking antihistamines and epsom salt baths. Yes, for some people they are not bad. For others, like me, I cannot think of anything worse.

  34. eric saboya
    July 30, 2013, 11:55 am

    Good article ! Congrats NG !

  35. Ian Faulds
    Bellingham, Washington, USA
    July 30, 2013, 12:22 am

    A few weeks ago my dad came back from a trip to Chicago and shortly thereafter discovered bedbugs had come home with him. They tagged along in his luggage and infested his bed. He ended up having to call an exterminator who told him bedbugs are on the rise in the last decade because toxins like DDT are no longer being used. These toxins used to kill insects like bedbugs, but are now working out of the environment so cases will continue to increase.
    Sounds like we should get used to these little buggers, it appears they are here to stay.

    Ian Faulds