What's our risk of getting bed bugs?
September 10, 2012 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Bed Bug Filter: my partner and I went on a road trip with friends who thought they had treated their bed bug problem. After the road trip, our friends found a bed bug on a pillow that had been in the car with us. We took preventative measures before we returned to our apartment (long details inside), but what else should we do? How freaked should we be?

Sorry about all the details. My main question is just this: based on the preventative measures we took, how worried should we still be, and when should we feel safe putting our trip luggage back into our closet?


- We live in Toronto. We flew to Chicago to meet some friends who live there, and, in our friends' car, we went on a road trip around the Midwest.

- Our friends in Chicago recently had what the exterminators thought was a mild case of bed bugs. They did a ton of laundry and the exterminators sprayed once. Our friends hadn't seen anything for a few weeks. We didn't stay at their apartment while in Chicago, because the exterminators weren't scheduled to do their next spray until after our road trip.

- We travelled in our friends' car on the road trip. They said the car had been searched thoroughly and hosed down with poison, and that all of the luggage they put in the car had been dried and checked like mad. We never intermingled our clothes, but our duffel bags were next to theirs on top of the car (in a hot plastic storage container). And in retrospect, their supposedly-safe luggage had just been sitting on their floor in their apartment before we left.

- On the road trip, we were super cautious about all the hotels: we didn't bring any luggage in without first scouring the mattresses and headboards, and didn't leave clothes or bags in risky spots.

- During the whole road trip, we didn't see any signs of bed bugs. My partner did get two non-itchy bites on her back, but because we were staying at a cabin north of Superior at the time, we thought it was just some other bug. (Several days later, the bites started to itch. She's convinced they're bed bug bites.)


- The day we flew back to Toronto, our friends told us that they had found a bed bug on a pillow that had been in the car for the whole road trip. When they found the bug, the pillow was in their apartment, so we thought the bug might have been from the apartment, not from the car. However, when they found the bug, the pillow was on something that was equipped with Climb Ups (those little cups that are like mini-moats to catch the bugs). So we're worried that the bed bug came from the car, even though we never saw anything on the pillow while we were driving.


- My partner and I went from the airport straight to the laundromat, washing and drying everything for 30 minutes, including duffel bags, camera bags, purses. We put all the clothes in garbage bags inside the dried duffels, and the non-clothes in big sealed Ziplocs. We left them in the spare bathroom and entryway of our house that night.

- None of our clothes from the trip, or the clothes we wore while doing laundry, went near our carpets or our bedroom.

- The next morning, we went online and learned that the rule of "20 minutes on hot in the dryer" only goes for already-dry clothes. Since some of ours had gone in wet, we took everything back to the laundromat and dried it all for another 30 minutes. But it had been sitting on our floor all night before that.

- All of our trip stuff is now quarantined: the twice-dried clothes and duffels are all in garbage bags inside big tupperware containers, in our spare bathroom (across the house from the bedroom). We've sprayed them inside and out with Surekill bed bug spray many times, for what it's worth. I vacuumed the whole house and disposed of the bag outside of the apartment.


- We got home six days ago. So far we haven't seen any clear signs: no bugs, feces, or fecal stains on the mattress, and no new bites. (The first time we checked our mattress, I did find evidence of an old bug skin of indeterminate species, but it seemed ancient and crumbly. I've had the mattress for 7 years and never looked in that spot, so chances are it's not new.)

- One worrying thing is that, on the second night, I went into the quarantine bathroom and there was a weird blood spot in the toilet bowl, on some toilet paper. Maybe I blew my nose and didn't notice it. But it looked kind of like how blood looks inside a transparent bed bug nymph, but it's not like it was encased in a bug shape with legs or anything. (But might the Surekill have melted the bug? It's not like I know how the poison operates on them...)


1. Based on the risk and the precautions we took, how bad is the situation? How likely is it that bed bugs got into our apartment and are making their way to our bedroom?

2. We've read that bed bugs can live for 18 months without food. We'd rather not maintain the quarantine for that long. But could an adult, or an egg, have survived the dryer? If so, could it hatch and the nymphs stay alive for 18 months without eating once? Basically, we don't know when it's safe to reintegrate the quarantined stuff. (We'll certainly wash and dry it all once more before doing so.)

3. Does our quarantine even sound secure? Once again: dried clothes, in tied-up garbage bags (didn't have enough big ziplocks), in big plastic tubs, doused on poison, in a bathtub.

OK...thanks. This is a rare case where I truly hope everybody laughs at me and tells me to take a chill pill.
posted by Beardman to Home & Garden (6 answers total)
I sympathize because I've had a recent scare, too. The faqs at Bedbugger.com have some good info. (I am not affiliated with them)
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:08 AM on September 10, 2012

A side-note - it only takes 5 minutes at 120 degrees to kill bedbugs and eggs (found this on Bedbugger and elsewhere). The 20 minutes/130 degrees is to allow for error/low-heat dryers. It's extraordinarily unlikely that anything survived your first round of cleaning. (I once used an instant-read thermometer to check on my non-industrial old dryer and it got everything up to 120 degrees easily.)

Honestly, here's what I'd do: Take the quarantined stuff and clean/dry it one more time (to get rid of the pesticide and for peace of mind) making sure to get the dryer temperature up correctly. Wash out the tubs and wash down the bathtub. Then reintegrate everything.

Quarantine is really for stuff that you can't clean, not for stuff that you can. There's no reason to quarantine something that may have been exposed to bedbugs but that has been through three rounds of cleaning.

You can't know about the blood spot - except I don't think that pesticides melt bugs. That bug would have had to have been squashed, and there'd be bug traces, even if faint and crumbly. (Also, anything that could "melt" the bug would have altered the color/consistency of the blood. And a chemical that actually melts bedbugs - which are pretty sturdy - especially when it has dried - would be really dangerous! It would melt chitin! It would not be something that a private citizen could just spray around! It would probably only be available to pest control professionals.)

I suggest that you chill out. If anything survived your trip and the precautions you've taken, it's too late, honestly. But I doubt that it did.

Here's a thing: I used to volunteer at a community center where many of the regular attendees lived in a bedbug-infested building and were of course bringing in coats and bags all the time. We actually found a bedbug once - we killed it and bagged/tossed everything that had been nearby. And yet we never got an infestation. My impression is that middle-vector transmission (ie, from an infestation to a person to a third place) is actually not as common as it seems - bedbugs like to lie in wait near beds and in heaped up stuff and inside bags; they don't like to ramble around. So if there's just a bug or two in a bag, those bugs can amble off into someone else's bag, but it's not incredibly likely.
posted by Frowner at 8:43 AM on September 10, 2012

I would be super freaked out in your situation too (have gone through that nightmare once, it was enough stress for a lifetime), but your preventative measures are even more thorough than I would do. I wouldn't be that worried.

Your clothes are fine. Quarantine is for clothes that haven't been cleaned or things that can't be cleaned. I'd be comfortable putting clothes back in circulation after just washing and drying, let alone all that other stuff - that's all we did when we were actually (not just suspected) infested, and we were still able to get rid of them.

Plus, you can never be 100% safe since you live in an apartment - I'd be far more worried about picking them up from your neighbours, and there's not that much you can do about that, particularly in a large city.
posted by randomnity at 8:56 AM on September 10, 2012

I would be totally freaked out in your situation as well, so don't be too hard on yourself for that. What you have done so far is really everything you can do, according to every bedbug site I have ever read. I travel all the time for business, and I strip hotel beds before bringing anything beyond the bathroom. Only once in my 8+ years of doing this did I find bedbugs. Though we didn't touch or sit on anything in the infested room, the hotel moved us to a new room, and we thoroughly searched the bed and furniture before even bringing our bags in, we still put every piece of clothing that we had worn while inside that hotel in a sealed garbage bag and then into a hot dryer for an hour when we got home.

For your peace of mind, I'd run all the quarantined stuff through a hot dryer one more time and then go ahead and re-integrate it. If you're super paranoid, get some of those Climb Up things and a mattress cover. Otherwise, even super-paranoid-about-bedbugs-me wouldn't worry further.
posted by bedhead at 9:57 AM on September 10, 2012

I wanted to follow up on what Frowner said -- bed bugs, while a nuisance are rarely as super-transmissible as they can seem on the internet. Yes, some people do get them in crazy ways, but that's not the norm.

As anecdata, I lived in a house about ten years ago where people would occasionally bring in bed bugs when they moved in from the hostel. The bedbugs never spread to other rooms in the house despite sharing communal living room furniture. Both times, they were gotten rid off by disposing of the mattress and washing sheets and clothing, with little other work.

I'm not saying that there are not real worries, just that you only hear about one end of the spectrum online. You've taken every reasonable precaution. Any additional worry is just unpleasant anxiety, not changing your outcome at all. Dry once more, if you want, reintegrate, and work hard to turn your mind to other things.
posted by mercredi at 10:34 AM on September 10, 2012

Thanks everybody. Still no signs, so in a few more days I guess we'll rewash and dry all the quarantined clothes, reintegrate, and hope for the best.
posted by Beardman at 7:46 AM on September 11, 2012

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