Yesterday’s post explored the increase in bedbug infestations in the UK and France.
France is a focal point in this story because Paris is busy getting ready for the 2024 Olympic Games. Every hotel must be readied for reservations.
That said, residents of New York, London — and even Switzerland — have suffered through infestations.
Today’s entry looks at first-hand experiences in getting rid of these tiny bugs which really do plague households at an alarming monetary and psychological cost.
What to look for and precautions
A Times article from October 5, 2023, gives tips from James Logan, professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), and the university’s former head of the disease control department, on what to look for and what to avoid doing.
This is what to look out for (emphases mine):
Bedbugs are typically a flattened oval shape, 4-5mm long and light brown to reddish in colour. They are nocturnal and start feeding at night. Signs of Bedbugs include bites that appear on skin that is exposed while sleeping. Bites usually appear in a cluster or a line. Bedbugs can leave spots of blood on your sheets, usually from being squashed, as well as small brown spots on bedding or furniture, their faeces …
“People do often react quite badly to bites,” Logan says, adding that antibiotics can be necessary if a bite becomes infected. If a bite becomes hot, produces a rash, swells or tracks a vein, see your GP. Otherwise, keep the area clean and try to avoid scratching the bites. If the bites are itchy, use a mild steroid cream or take an antihistamine.
However, not everyone has bites that show, as we will see from the stories which follow.
This is what to do when staying in a hotel or other accommodation:
“If you’re staying in a hotel, make sure that your suitcase is zipped up and kept off the ground,” Logan says. Placing your luggage directly on the bed or on furniture is an easy way for bedbugs to attach themselves to your belongings. “Don’t leave your clothes lying around on the floor, and if you do, shake them out,” he says. Pay attention to the seams to make sure no bugs are hiding in there.” Also look carefully under the mattress and the sheets.
Logan urges caution before travelling back home. Bag up your clothes and remove them in an outside space. As soon as possible, wash them at a very high temperature, ideally 60C. After washing, tumble dry on a hot setting for at least 30 minutes. Another option, recommended by the NHS, is to put affected clothing or bedding into a plastic bag and put it in the freezer for three or four days.
In yesterday’s post, he told a Guardian reporter to avoid using hotel room drawers.
Bedbugs can move from one flat or hotel room to another:
Apart from attaching themselves to someone’s clothes or belongings “there’s evidence that bedbugs can crawl between hotel rooms or between flats in a block.” If you’re worried that a neighbour has bedbugs it can be worth sealing your door frame,” Logan says. “You can also get insecticides to sprinkle on any areas where there’s a connecting or adjoining door.” He adds, however, that it’s unlikely that bedbugs would be able to move from one detached house to another.
Dealing with an infestation
Chemicals probably will not help to kill bedbugs, because they are now immune to most pesticides.
Temperature extremes seem to be the solution:
The key is to spot an infestation as soon as possible. Bedbugs spread quickly, and females can lay several eggs a day so it doesn’t take long before they’re not just in your mattress but under the bed, behind skirting boards and behind cracks in the walls. Consider buying a bedbug “trap”. Alongside his colleague Professor Mary Cameron at the LSHTM, Logan has developed BugScents, a science-based bedbug lure that claims to detect an infestation within four hours.
For a home infestation, fumigation — which involves spraying toxic chemicals — is usually the first port of call, although Logan notes that this can sometimes fail because bedbugs have become resistant to the chemicals. Pest control companies also offer a heat treatment, which involves heating a room to more than 50C for 90 minutes to kill the bugs. Another option involves specialist freezers capable of dropping to temperatures as low as minus 22C to remove all insects and eggs. When an infestation is severe, furniture has to be thrown away, carpets ripped up and skirting boards removed.
On Tuesday, October 10, Times journalist Isolde Walters posted her experience with bedbugs in New York five years ago:
… I still shudder at the memory.
It began when I spotted a crimson bug crawling across my duvet. I snapped a picture and sent it to my flatmates. Pippa, who slept in the room next to mine, had complained of red lumps that she’d dismissed as a shaving rash. Fun fact: not everyone gets bedbug bite marks so my skin had remained blemish-free while these creatures feasted on me nightly.
The managers of our building sprang into action. Bedbugs are no joke in New York. When you sign a lease, you receive paperwork disclosing the infestation history of your new home and landlords have to pay to get rid of them.
In came Scott Palatnik, a Brooklyn exterminator, who confirmed an infestation:
Astonishingly, he did this with the help of his dog, trained to sniff out bedbugs and their eggs.
A GB News guest who related his own story of bedbugs said on Thursday, October 12, that bedbugs smell musky. Years after the event, he said he could still smell the disagreeable scent.
Returning to New York, this was how Scott Palatnik dealt with Isolde Walters’s flat:
First off, our bedbug-riddled headboards, bed frames, pillows and duvets had to be chucked. Strangely, we were able to keep our mattresses but had to buy zip-up protectors that could not be unzipped for at least 18 months.
Scott sprayed the whole apartment with a mix of poison and ground-up glass (yes, the latest thing in bedbug eradication) twice, with a fortnight between sprays. Heat treatments and traps are available, while you can also try deep-freezing anything the bedbugs are attached to.
We had to wash every single piece of clothing, bedding and towels in our possession at a high temperature before running everything through the dryer to kill the bugs or any eggs they may have laid in the fabric. Everything else — books, lampshades, handbags — went into a device called a bedbug zapper, which resembled a vast oven and took over our tiny living room. A row almost broke out when Pippa refused to put her passport in the oven.
For a month, we spent our nights battling infestation, washing and drying clothes, heaving belongings in and out of the oven and sealing everything in plastic. It was exhausting …
And we were lucky. Two sprays got all the bugs. I’ve heard horror stories of people who had to move because, spray after spray, the indestructible creatures kept crawling out of the woodwork. But I never stopped seeing bedbugs out of the corner of my eye in that apartment. I only felt free of them when I moved out four months later.
A bedbug infestation is a lonely experience:
There’s nothing like a case of bedbugs to turn you into a leper. My boss told me to work from home in case a bug jumped off me and onto a colleague. Friends were full of sympathy on the phone but no one actually wanted to meet up for fear of contagion.
On October 11, The Guardian carried another five-year-old infestation story from New York:
Adam approached the bed with a growing sense of dread, lifted up the sheet and pushed the mattress to one side. It was, he says, “like a wound opening”. Hundreds of bedbugs poured out. Earlier that day, he had noticed blood spots on his bedlinen around the area where his feet were, thought perhaps he had been scratching himself in his sleep, and taken everything to the launderette. Later, working from home and sitting at the desk in his room, he had noticed a small dark insect, then another, and another. Looking over at his bed, he saw one on the clean duvet cover. That’s when he made his sickening discovery. “I was, like, oh my God, this is horrific,” he says. He thinks he’d had them for several months, but because he is one of the estimated 30% of people who don’t react to bites, hadn’t realised they were feeding on him.
Adam lost nearly everything he owned:
Adam, who is British but was flat-sharing in New York at the time, threw out his bed, sofa, desk and many possessions. He wrapped his vinyl records in clingfilm and sealed them with tape; it was three years before he opened them again. “The bedbugs were in the bedframe. They were inside my books, in the spines – they can hide there until they can come out and destroy your life again.” Bedbugs can become dormant for many months without food. “All our clothes were bagged up and sent to the launderette to be washed and dried at ridiculous temperatures. By the end of that day, I basically had nothing.” He laughs at the memory, but adds: “On a serious note, I don’t think people realise how much you have to get rid of.” For people with no money, in substandard housing, and with negligent landlords, a bedbug infestation can be devastating.
Adam’s treatment was somewhat less successful than Isolde’s:
Adam’s apartment was treated by pest control three times. “Every time we thought the bedbugs had gone, we’d see another one.” He would spot them walking up the walls, “waddling along full of blood”. Thinking they were likely to be coming up through the floorboards, from the apartment below, he and his flatmate sealed every single gap with caulk. He became “obsessed”, he says, reading everything he could about bedbugs, and buying special traps to put under the legs of his new bed.
The memory lingers:
Five years on, he is just as concerned. If he stays somewhere where the mattress isn’t properly covered, he won’t sleep on it. “Even now I still get a sort of itchy feeling around my feet like something’s in the bed, and I’ll have to get up and make sure that there’s nothing there. If I see random specks of dirt on the floor, I’ll have an absolute freak-out about it.”
Even pristine Switzerland is not immune to bedbugs.
The same Guardian article tells us the story of another Briton, Noel Butterworth, who also lost most of his possessions:
“We’re just constantly thinking about it – we are seriously worried about having it again, all the time,” says Noel Butterworth, who lives in Switzerland with his family.
Two years ago, he noticed a rash on his arm; a week later, his wife had one too. They called in pest control, and the treatment included spraying the entire apartment with insecticide and packaging everything from the two bedrooms affected into boxes to be taken to giant freezers. Moving to blow-up beds in the living room, the family were warned that the bugs might follow them, “seeking food”.
The bugs did follow him and his family into the living room.
After that, whatever could go wrong did go wrong.
Noel’s story really does resemble a plague of biblical proportions:
… weeks of treatment followed. It was disruptive and upsetting – furniture that had been in the family for generations was destroyed, they had to move to a hotel for a couple of weeks, and relations with the neighbours deteriorated. It was also extremely expensive – he estimates that the total cost was upwards of £25,000. The stress was so bad, says Butterworth, that he and his wife had several counselling sessions to deal with it. “It was a situation that was almost getting out of control, and we didn’t know what to do about it,” he says. “It just didn’t feel like our home any more.” It no longer felt like a place of security. Worse, he adds, “it’s your bed. Your bed is your comfort zone in many ways, and it felt like it had been taken away from us.” Two years on, he still checks the bed every day. “Any time we’re travelling, we’re focused on making sure that we protect ourselves.” They bought a heat tent, which they put suitcases and clothes into to treat them after travelling.
Linda told The Guardian that, even though her family’s infestation took place a few years ago in London, the trauma stays with her:
You only know if you have bedbugs when you spot one, which makes you constantly vigilant. “It drives you mad,” she says …
She wishes she didn’t have so much bedbug knowledge, she adds. It’s just “a nightmare. It brought me pretty close to the brink.”
She and her husband paid for the treatment themselves, because they did not know their landlord should have assumed the cost:
A couple of years ago, she and her husband, who live in north London, noticed bites on one of their children; then they found a bedbug in his bed a few days later. They contacted a pest control company immediately. The treatment, which involved heating the flat to high temperatures, cost £1,400 and was guaranteed to eradicate them in 24 hours. “Despite that, they kept returning,” says Linda. They didn’t know where the bugs were coming from – for around six months she wouldn’t allow her children to sit down on public transport – until they traced the source to the empty flat below. They paid for all the treatment themselves, thinking they were responsible for the infestation, rather than getting their landlord to fix it.
Three more treatments followed, each involving vacating the flat, along with their possessions, and Linda estimates she did about 90 loads of laundry. It was frustrating, expensive and stressful, and more than two years on, the family are still extremely cautious. Last week, her husband turned down an opportunity to visit Paris because of the reports of bedbugs. “Whenever I stay in a hotel or an Airbnb, I check the mattress for any evidence, like little black spots – their faeces are dark because they feed on blood,” says Linda.
In another London story, in 2016, Barbara brought back bedbugs from a holiday in Portugal. Unfortunately, she was also due to move to another shared flat a short time later. Her flatmates at the time were understanding. Once alone in her new flat — also to be shared — Barbara’s exterminator became her best friend during that time:
My housemates were extremely understanding (and, given we had already suffered through the renters’ delights of rats, a cockroach, a collapsing ceiling, and a plague of flies, rather stoic by this point), while our landlord paid for the treatment that would clear that house’s problem. But what about my new ones? Kindly – and, let’s be honest, recklessly – they said I could still move in. I had a week in the empty flat before they arrived in which to make sure the plague didn’t follow me, and so I armed myself with every article and forum post I could find, and enlisted an exterminator, who I’ll call Rob. He would provide a “prophylatic treatment” in every room and I would arrive with each of my possessions in sealed bags, then painstakingly neutralise them to kill any insects or eggs. Anything that could be tumble-dried would be, books would be hoovered, solid items sprayed with rubbing alcohol. Furniture is often a write-off, but luckily I didn’t have any. Electricals are tricky – you’re best sealing them away for as long as you can.
Fast forward a week, and my life had shrunk down to an empty room covered in a white, powdery poison, a bed in the middle of the floor with no sheets or duvet, and piles of bags ready to be ritually cleansed. My social life fell away, replaced by regular texting with Rob, which mainly consisted of me sending grainy photos of my limbs, panicking that I had seen a bite, and him replying that there was nothing there. I spent my evenings at the launderette, and my nights lying awake, hoping against hope that any remaining insects would come and bite me, thereby committing kamikaze as they scuttled through the poison.
A week passed without a bite, or any sign of bugs on my mattress. My first housemate was due to move in the next day, and Rob was coming over for his second round of poison, and to check, with his hyper-trained eye, for any signs of infestation. I dared to feel hopeful, but as I looked around the flat – my limp piles of remaining possessions, the bare bed, the smears of poison – I despaired. What if it hadn’t worked, despite all this effort? How would I feel if I visited all this on my friends? But later that day, Roberto texted: All clear! ;). They never returned. I had my life back. Well, apart from my laptop. Seven years and counting, and it’s still sealed away. Just to be safe.
What horrifying stories.
So, how was it then that bedbugs were largely eradicated in the Western world between the Second World War and the 1980s?
A 2009 Guardian article explains:
Bedbugs are on their way back, despite having been all but eradicated in the developed world by the 1980s.
In the US, in the postwar years, DDT was used to kill them off. In this country – what an English solution – the authorities shamed the population into seeking their own treatment, by drawing a link between infestation and slovenliness, thus establishing a stigma that survives today. In fact, your cleanliness or otherwise makes no difference to whether bedbugs set up home with you. All they’re interested in is your blood. If you encounter them, there’s a decent chance they’re coming home with you. And you stand a decent chance of encountering them.
Stuart Hine, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London, estimates that there has been a threefold increase in London’s bedbug population this decade. That figure is backed by the research of Bedbugs Limited, an extermination company founded by microbiologist David Cain after he became obsessed with the creatures …
So why are the bedbugs biting? What brought them back to Britain? The simplest explanation is globalisation … With more and more of us travelling abroad to regions where bedbugs were never eradicated, more and more of us are likely to bring them back. They thrive in homes inhabited by large numbers of people, where they are able to feed and breed freely.
… In the meantime, David Cain has a piece of advice for commuters: “Don’t sit down on public transport.”
And yet, given my age, everyone in London offers me a seat on public transport. It would be rude to refuse, especially as younger passengers absolutely insist on it.