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NEWS | June 13, 2023

DOD expert offers tips on keeping bed bugs from hitching unwanted rides this travel season

By Douglas Holl Defense Centers for Public Health-Aberdeen Public Affairs

As summer travel picks up for many military families, due to vacations or a scheduled permanent change of station, or PCS, move, there is one passenger you don’t want hitching a ride with you or your family – bed bugs. Bed Bug Awareness Week, observed annually during the first week in June, offers an opportunity to learn more about these pesky critters and how to protect yourself from unwanted infestations.

Although bed bugs are not known for spreading infectious diseases to humans, bites from these little blood suckers can cause severe skin reactions that itch.

“Like most blood-feeding insects, bed bugs have piercing-sucking mouthparts that deliver salivary proteins to the host and can cause allergic and systemic reactions,” said Dr. Maria Gonzalez Morales, an entomologist with Defense Centers for Public Health–Aberdeen. “Scratching the bites can also lead to secondary bacterial infections.”

Gonzalez Morales says a bed bug bite isn’t the only thing to be concerned about.

“A recent finding suggests that bed bugs produce vast amounts of histamine in their feces, which raises concerns about their importance in triggering allergies and asthma,” the doctor said. “Infestations can also produce psychological distress, nightmares, insomnia, anxiety and social isolation.

There has been a global resurgence of bed bugs, Gonzalez Morales added. Because bed bugs rely on humans to move around, the military’s frequent temporary duty assignments, PCS moves, and deployments create the perfect storm to increase incidents of bed bug infestations.

“Bed bugs are a cosmopolitan pest, meaning they have adjusted to live in every single human environment,” Gonzalez Morales said. “Bed bug infestations have been reported on almost every continent (except Antarctica) and are known to be heavier in larger cities or more heavily populated regions.”

Professional pest controllers rank bed bugs as the hardest pest to eradicate in the U.S. During 2021–2022, the top five states that reported bed bug infestations and treatments were Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, California, and Michigan, each of which also has a number of military installations located within the state.

“Service members should care about bed bugs because infestations can take a toll on the physical and psychological health of the service member and their family,” Gonzalez Morales said. “These impacts can be detrimental to mission readiness.”

The presence of bed bug infestations is not related to the type of dwelling, structure or even cleanliness of the environment. Infestations have been reported in a wide variety of places such as hotels, trains, secondhand furniture stores, hospitals, offices, and even submarines. Anyone who is exposed to a location with bed bugs could potentially bring the infestation to their own home.

There are recommended steps travelers can follow to avoid spreading bed bugs while traveling, the doctor said.

  1. Keep your suitcase as far away from the bed as possible. Instead, opt for the closet or bathroom to prevent insects from crawling into personal belongings.
  2. Thoroughly inspecting the room and sleeping area, including all bedroom furniture and close proximity, such as between the mattress, box spring and bedding, should be carefully inspected. Insects are often hard to find; it is more common to see shed skins (golden color), blood stains on the mattress, or fecal spots, which often resemble multiple black ink stains.
  3. Take additional precautions after arriving home. If you suspect contact with, or the presence of, bed bugs, place clothes in the dryer and dry them on the high heat setting for at least an hour. The heat from the machine will kill all life stages present. Place any luggage in bags and close them tightly. If possible, place the bags outside in the hot sun. Depending on the location, season and temperature, the heat from the sun, which could reach upwards of 120°F inside the bags, will kill any bed bugs present.
If you suspect your home or barracks room may be infested with bed bugs, Dr. Gonzalez Morales recommends immediately contacting the appropriate installation authority within the chain of command or, if you live off post, a professional pest management company.

“Using a ‘do-it-yourself’ method or insecticides, like bug bombs, commonly found in stores, has the potential to aggravate the situation and possibly disperse the infestation,” Gonzalez Morales said. “Eradication of bed bugs relies on comprehensive Integrated Pest Management programs comprised of multiple techniques and methods of attack that professional pest controllers are trained to accomplish.”

The doctor said the DCPH-A Pesticide Use and Resistance Monitoring Branch is launching a new project that aims to better understand bed bug populations within military populations, assess historic insecticide use, and characterize insecticide resistance on military installations.

“The overall goal is to create an educational dashboard where each military installation can access reliable information and control recommendations tailored to their needs,” Gonzalez Morales said.

The first step of this new bed bug program consists of a questionnaire that will be shared through a weblink. The evaluation will provide everyone who takes the survey with a tool for reporting bed bug incidents. This will facilitate detection awareness with the goal of eradicating bed bug infestations, Gonzalez Morales said. The survey takes about 10 minutes to complete and can be accessed here.

For more information on preventing bed bugs, check out this Bed Bug Factsheet.

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