Bedbugs aren't just for beds any more. Recently, a Canadian family got bitten all over by bedbugs on a nine-hour flight to London. What's worse, the mother saw a bedbug and knew what it was at the beginning of the flight, but the crew said there was nothing they could do.
Photo via Visual hunt
Frequent travellers are used to watching out for bedbugs in hotels, but what can you do about aeroplanes? I asked some entomologists, and then immediately boarded a plane for a five-hour flight. (I am happy to report I saw zero bedbugs.)
First, the Bad News
"It would be difficult to do an inspection on a plane as passenger," says urban entomologist Jody Green, who fields questions about bugs of all kinds at the University of Nebraska extension. Bedbugs hide in cracks and crevices, and you can get bitten without ever seeing one.
That means the airline's cleaning crew might not see them either. I've found previous passengers' garbage in my seat back pocket; there's no way the crew is exterminating bedbugs in the 10 minutes between when they deplane one group of passengers and begin boarding another.
Your worries don't end when you get off the plane, either. Bedbugs can find their way into your luggage, including your purse or laptop bag. Green says "the main goal is: DO NOT bring them home."
OK, Now Relax a Little
This might be a small comfort, but bedbugs don't carry disease, and they don't cause major health problems (although you could be allergic or react badly, same as with bee stings). Green suggests a few things you can do to protect yourself:
- Cover exposed skin. Bedbugs can't bite through most clothing, although pantyhose is probably not good enough protection. The Canadian mother in the recent news story found bites on her hands, neck and waistline.
- Bring your own seat covers if you're serious about this. And your own blanket or sleep sack, too.
- Wrap your luggage in plastic. The lil buggers won't be able to get through.
I stopped Green here to tell her I really don't want to be the weirdo on the plane with plastic wrapped luggage. "I think the same way," she said, so she unpacks her luggage in the garage and inspects everything thoroughly before bringing any of it into the house.
When you check your luggage after a trip, look for small flat bugs that are as small as a poppy seed or as large as an apple seed. Entomologist Joe Ballenger, who answers questions at Ask an Entomologist, points out that you shouldn't jump to a conclusion as soon as you see something crawling; "most suspected bed bug pics we get sent aren't bed bugs."
If you can catch a bug, save it in a plastic baggie (you can put it in the freezer to kill it) and send a photo to someone who can help you identify it. Besides Ask an Entomologist, many universities have an extension that answers questions like this. And they can give you advice, as in this detailed infographic, on how to get rid of a bedbug infestation.
One last caveat: You can't always be sure of where you got the bedbugs, even if you know when you first felt the bites. They can take up to 48 hours to start itching or feeling painful, and some people don't have much of a reaction at all. Ballenger suggests notifying the airline you flew with and any hotels where you stayed. And here's a pleasant thought: "If you got them in the hotel, you may have introduced them to the plane you travelled on. In my opinion, it's safer to let both parties know." So that gross person who brought the bedbugs on the plane? Might have been you.