How to Vanquish Bedbug-Borne Phobias?
March 25, 2006 2:35 PM   Subscribe

I was heavily bitten by bedbugs over the summer of 2005, and although they're gone, I've grown very anxious about the thought of ever becoming reinfested.

In August 2005, my doctor identified bites on my arms as bedbug bites. My landlord and I found my bed and boxspring had numerous bedbugs crawling along it. They had been biting me for about four months' time; I had chalked it up to mosquitos.

My landlady wanted to exterminate using an ineffective technique, but my research made clear that the method she suggested wouldn't work. I offered to split the cost of an exterminating service that has been around over a century. They performed two treatments, and after the second, I never saw a live bedbug in that apartment again. When I learned she was not going to inspect, let alone preventatively treat, the other apartments for bedbugs, I asked her if she would consent to letting me out of my lease early. She did, and I moved at the end of last October.

I've been at my new apartment for nearly five months with no bedbugs spotted. Although bedbugs can last without food for up to eighteen months, they're not going to voluntarily pass up food for that long. Thus, if I've not been bitten in the past five months, I hopefully most likely did not bring them with me to my new home. (Knock on wood.)

My perusal of blogs suggests to me it's not unusual for people who have dealt with bedbugs to have a good deal of residual anxiety even following the resolution of their infestations. My own anxieties no longer focus over the possibility that I've remained infested. I initially was casting a hard eye at every dark speck that happened to catch my eye. But the anxiety that remains from that experience focuses around the thought of reinfestation; of this occuring again.

It would help if I knew where my infestation originated. With no way of knowing for sure, I seem to subconsciously attribute it to one of two causes. Either I was infested while on public transit, which I ride daily; or I was infested when I stayed in a hotel in late February 2005. I don't remember noticing bites until late April 2005, and it would be odd for bedbugs to not feed for two months, but hotels are known to be the transmission vectors for bedbug infestations nowadays, and this hotel is even a regular home to crews for a particular international airline. And so I find myself checking subway seats before sitting down (not obsessively, but casting a hard eye at the cracks between the seats and the subway car side). And I am extremely anxious about the day in my future in which I will find myself needing to stay at a hotel overnight again. I'm honestly afraid that even if the experience doesn't cause reinfestation, it'll nevertheless turn me into a nervous wreck for the weeks preceding and following the experience.

So, you guys have the honest-to-God ability, through your answers, to make a substantial difference in my anxiety level, and I'm hoping you can offer advice in two arenas.

The first is from a practical perspective. (1) If one were to pay attention to the news media, you would think that every hotel and motel in America has a bedbug problem. I am wondering what the true likelihood of contracting a bedbug infestation from an overnight hotel stay is. One in five? One in a hundred? One in three thousand? In short, can anyone tell me what kind of odds I am running? The more the odds are in my favor, the more mental ammo I can provide myself. (Note that bedbugs infest both ritzy and poor hotels alike: they aren't attracted to filth, they're attracted to CO2 and live off blood. Think tick-like, not roach-like.) (2) Can you recommend ways in which someone could determine prior to arrival whether a hotel has bedbugs? With million-dollar awards from juries for bedbug bites (seriously), hotels will now very happily lie through their teeth. (3) Once you arrive in your room, what things can you look for in that room to determine whether it suffers from infestation?

The second is from an emotional perspective. I imagine few, if any, of you have had to deal with bedbugs. But I'm sure some of you have had moments in your life that have caused you great anxiety and influenced your long-term behavior following the experience. What did you do to help yourself get over it? I have gotten better; I will continue to get better, hopefully. I am a strong man in many different ways, and I do not focus over this anxiety 24-7. I'm not, in short, an insane, tremoring basket case. But it is enough of a recurring and strong presence in my mind that I want to decrease its power over me. I am in therapy, but my therapist has recognized in the past the value of group input that Ask MeFi offers; I'm hoping you guys can dish up some life-changing advice for me this time around.

(A postscript: I realize this is nothing compared to the anxiety that an Iraq War veteran or a Hurricane Katrina survivor might have to deal with. My intellect understands that sense of scale. But that intellectual sense is not hooked up very well to the parts of me that are generating this anxiety.)
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (9 answers total)
I worked at a hotel a while ago, an "upscale" one, and we got a call from someone stating they got infested with lice at the hotel. When you think about it, it's entirely possible because the comforters are not washed between guests.

I can relate to some of your anxiety after a couple of bouts of flea infestations. The bites on my ankles left scars and took months to heal. I am zealous about cleaning and just to be safe I set off some of those bug bomb canisters once in a while. I don't really like the idea of pesticides, but I hate the idea of fleas more. You can buy a box of 3-6 canisters for about $10 at Home Depot and set them off as you go out in the morning. Maybe doing that will help ease your anxiety.
posted by 45moore45 at 2:55 PM on March 25, 2006

Looks like a followup to this.
posted by Krrrlson at 3:03 PM on March 25, 2006

I feel your pain--I had a bed bug problem once myself, and while I don't have the everyday anxiety you seem to have, everytime I get any kind of itchy spot, I'm overwhelmed with anxiety, and I usually start vacuuming like crazy.

I'm pretty sure most store-bought bug bombs wouldn't do anything to prevent bed bugs. They certainly don't do anything to get rid of them.

With hotels, I don't think it's really possible to predict which hotels might have an infestation at any point in time. You could ask about each hotel's preventative measure. If one hotel responds "er, uh, prevention? Um...don't worry, we don't have bed bugs," and one says "Oh yes, we get regular inspections blah blah specific information," then probably the latter is your safer bet. Then, when you get home from your trip, if you wash your clothes in really hot water and vacuum out your suitcase (properly disposing of the bag), then I'd think it highly unlikely to bring on an infestation.

Most importantly, whenever you start to feel anxious about it, just turn in around--bask in the pure joy of NOT getting bitten at night after months of frustration and expense. Yeah, it sucks that it's become so much more common to get them, but RIGHT NOW you don't have bed bugs. Enjoy it.
posted by lampoil at 3:15 PM on March 25, 2006

Can I suggest using laughter to help deal with it? Here I'm drawing upon my epic battle with a mouse infestation in a previous apartment.

It got to the point where I was really letting it control my life. . . Even when I thought I had it under control, it would be months before I felt confident and then I would find they were back, or hadn't ever left. Meanwhile, I was a basket case.

And then it got to a certain point where I still was having to deal with it, but I also took a second to recognize how ridiculous it all was. How crazy I must have looked on my hands and knees talking to a rodent I couldn't see. Or running around at night with a broom screaming at the little fuckers (I even named one L'il Fucker, since that's what I was always calling him).

Anyway, sometimes -- not always -- I was able to laugh at it all and I think I was better off when I could.

Good luck.
posted by veggieboy at 3:51 PM on March 25, 2006

On the psychological:

I imagine few, if any, of you have had to deal with bedbugs.

If few people have had to deal with it once, then you would have to have really really bad luck to deal with it twice.

On the practical: I agree with just asking a hotel how they prevent bed bugs, and if they don't have a real answer, don't stay there. Talk to someone higher up than a clerk, too, cause someone just answering the phone may not know what management is up to when it comes to bugs.
posted by Airhen at 4:05 PM on March 25, 2006

I stayed at a youth hostel in NYC five or so years ago, and wound up with fifty mosquito-bite looking things in the morning. I stayed there another night, and another fifty bites showed up. I came home (DC at the time) with 100 of these bites all over my body (but oddly avoiding my face), and my roommates joked that I had syphilis and all kinds of horrible diseases, which helped me get over it.

I'm convinced the bites were from bedbugs, and the experience freaked me out pretty well, even after I had gotten back home and thoroughly washed everything I took on that trip. Having them bite you for months has got to be pretty hard to get over.

But here's the thing: since then I've stayed in youth hostels all over eastern europe (about six) and extremely cheap motels in the US (fifteen or so). I've also stayed over at friends' houses a ton, and being that I lived in DC at the time and currently am in NYC, I ride public transportation constantly. I've never had a problem again.

Things to look for in a hotel room: A british guy who I met travelling told me that bed bugs will bite a person and then scuttle into crevasses in the wall. So you can tell that there are bed bugs, often, by looking for old streaks of blood near the carpet or any other crack / crevasse in the walls. The guy had been all over the world, so I trust this advice.
posted by lorrer at 4:07 PM on March 25, 2006

isn't it more likely that the bugs came in from another infested apartment in the building rather than travelling in with you via a hotel or public transit? you'd need more than an isolated bug to start a new infestation, and it seems much more likely that they travelled the short distance down the hall than the long distance on the subway. now that you're out of that building, perhaps your bedbug days are long gone.
posted by judith at 6:43 PM on March 25, 2006

I came back from a Mexican beach with a bunch of weird, squiggly, itchy red marks all over my right thigh and buttock. It took visiting several different dermatologists and infectious disease specialists to finally get a proper diagnosis -- cutaneous larvae migrans. It's basically hookworm from the feces of cats and dogs that get embedded under the top few layers of human skin and live there, just hanging out and wiggling around. Yup, pretty high up there on the grossness scale.

I went into OCD overdrive for a while, and got totally irrationally scared that I could be infested in other places, with all kinds of things. For a while, I had lots of dreams about swarms of roaches and worms and bugs engulfing me. I got over it with the aid of my trusty therapist, who helped me to realize that the feeling of being "infested" or "contaminated" is a common manifestation of deeper feelings of shame or guilt or dirty "badness". Something like bedbugs or any other creepy crawly invasion of your person can be a trigger that brings those feelings to the surface.

This theory might be a little too Freudian for those who dislike the more abstract side of psychology, but I found it to be dead on. Just think about it: If there's not something more deeply rooted causing your anxiety, then why would you be so concerned about something that you rationally know is no big deal? Bedbugs are a little bit yucky and certainly unpleasant to have, but they're not fatal, nor are they painful.

I'd take this experience as an opportunity to examine what other things might be bothering you. Do you feel somehow contaminated by any feelings or experiences that you've had? Do you feel helpless in some area of your life, vulnerable to an "invasion" of sorts? Did having bedbugs make you feel unacceptable or dirty in some way, even though you know rationally that it's just something that anybody could catch, anywhere, no matter how good or clean or careful they are?

I don't think that any amount of reassurance about the low odds of contracting bedbugs again will really help you to get rid of the mild paranoia you're feeling. IMHO, you've got something deeper going on. This could be a great opportunity to get at something that lurks in the inner reaches of your psyche and exorcise it. And since you've already got a shrink to talk to, you may as well open up the dialogue and see if it goes anywhere. Hey, you've got nothing to lose but the bedbugs in your head :)

(Now wait a minute -- they're not really, physically in your head. "In your mind" would have been a better choice of words!)
posted by wetpaint at 1:56 AM on March 26, 2006

your feelings are very understandable. here's my advice:

when you must stay in a hotel, make it a nice one and buy temporary clothes and suitcase to use and then donate them to goodwill after your visit.

shower well on departure from said hotel room.

psychologically, tell yourself when imagining a second encounter: "so what." you got through the first encounter just fine. it might mean a hassle, and expense, but I guarantee it isn't as much of a trauma as your obsessive thoughts would suggest.

best wishes and this will pass, everything does.
posted by macinchik at 12:54 PM on March 26, 2006

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