Biting Back – Bed Bugs, Treatment, Hostels and Hotels

Posted on / by Alex Berger

How to treat bed bugs

Over the years travel has left me with a few scars.  Small injuries, cuts and scrapes from various poorly thought out misadventures are responsible for a few but by and far the most prolific culprit is the common bedbug.  These dastardly creatures are often almost too small to see with the naked eye, prolific, devious and have left a trail of small scars across my hands, elbows and legs. While most travelers have a passionate dislike and hatred for bed bugs I truly loath them.  In no small part because I harbor an unfortunate allergy to them which, if not treated immediately, results in significant swelling and possible infection. The downside to this allergic reaction is obvious but the upside is that I now know almost immediately when I’ve been attacked by bed bugs which helps identify exactly where they came from and treat them before there’s a risk of taking them with me to my next destination.

Bed Bugs Are Everywhere

While only talked about in passing (it’s a taboo topic after all) it appears that bed bug infestations have really gotten bad over the last few years.  The common traveler’s wisdom is that you’ll only get hit by bed bugs in cheap and sleazy accommodation. The first thing most of us check for when booking a hostel is the fateful “I got bed bugs here” review.   For my part, I avoided entire hostel chains because they still allowed people to bring in outside linens and sleeping backs for use – a practice the majority of modern hostels did away with a long time ago explicitly to help combat bed bug infestation. But, if this past year has shown me anything, it has shown me that bed bugs are everywhere. They’re not just in dingy sleaze pits, they’re in the best hotels and the cleanest hostels as well. This past year I’ve been hit by bed bugs three times, each months apart and each occurred on a different continent.  The first time it happened I was in a mid-level hostel in a historic city. The hostel went out of its way to be clean…in fact, it even had custom toilets in the bathroom rigged with automatic plastic seat covers that changed with each use. The second time it happened I was in one of Europe’s flagship hostels. A hostel that goes out of its way to keep its rooms spotless, custom packages all of its sheets in plastic wrap after washing, and carefully cleans its rooms each day.  The third time?  At a popular and well respected five star hotel. The take away?  Bed bugs are everywhere. You can get bed bugs anywhere.

How I Treat Bed Bug Bites

Before I continue let’s be clear that I’m not a medical professional and that I’m not providing medical advice.  This is what works for me after a series of trial and error experiments, nothing more, nothing less. I’ve found that the key to dealing with bed bug bites is to treat them immediately. As soon as I realize I’ve been bitten I take a strong dose of Benadryl and Ibuprofen.  Over the following several days I’ll continue to take the maximum recommended dosage of both. I’ve also found that about the worst thing you can do is itch a bed bug bite.  The combination of these two medications helps reduce swelling and discourage infection while simultaneously helping to reduce itching.  Unfortunately, I find that bed bug bites are extremely slow to heal and that even up to a week later scratching or disturbing the bite releases agitatants that can cause swelling and itching.  When available I’ll also apply bug bite lotion.  While these vary widely from country to country they’re usually a fast drying white or beige liquid which includes (in part) Zinc Oxide and Talcum.  If needed, just ask the local pharmacist what the best local option is for treating severe bug bites.

Preventing Future Bed Bug Bites

After taking my initial (strong) dose of Benadryl and Ibuprofen I immediately take the hottest shower I can stand and then change into clean clothes. Make sure to keep whatever clothing you had on, and which may be infected with bed bugs or bed bug eggs, separate from your bag and other clothing.  Place the potentially infected clothing in a plastic bag and then either have the hostel/hotel wash the clothing at high heat (at least 60 degrees C, though I prefer 90 when possible) or do it yourself in a local washing facility. Hopefully your jacket, bag and/or backpack were never in direct contact with the bed or another bed-bug prone area.  These items are the hardest to clean because they’re the most difficult to wash and/or to expose to sufficient heat to kill the bed bugs.  My understanding is that bed bugs have about a two week life cycle though they can live much longer so you’ll need to be extremely vigilant.  When doing spot checks for bed bugs remember that they dislike bright light and are often found inside pillow cases, along seams, and love mattresses.  Luckily, they tend not to travel very far and unless you’re looking at a major infestation will have fairly limited mobility. Remember: Don’t just assume that because you’re staying in a hygienic  room at a nice facility that you’re safe from bed bugs.  It’s always worth taking a few minutes to spot check the bed, sheets and pillows. Especially if you’re somewhere where the bed is pre-made for you. Not sure how to identify a bed bug?  They actually vary quite a bit in appearance, size and shape depending on their age and how well fed they are.  Young bed bugs tend to be red/pink in color and almost look like small ants while older bed bugs tend to be brown in color and rounder in shape.

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.


  • Jennifer
    November 13, 2012

    I have been extremely lucky never to have experienced bed bugs. But to be safe, I never place bags or clothing on the bed. And I place the luggage rack itself as far away from the bed as possible.

    • Alex Berger
      November 13, 2012

      Very lucky indeed! Though you also may just not react at all to their bites, in which case they might nibble on you without any issue. Usually unless it’s a really bad infestation there aren’t many of them actually there to bite you so chances of ending up infested are fairly low. Pays to be careful though!

  • Liz
    November 15, 2012

    Insect bites can hurt for days. I find Tea Tree Oil to be highly effective for repelling any critter even tiny mites and gnats that can stab like needless. Tea tree oil is a multi-purpose disinfectant, deodorant, cold medication and insect repellant. When you wake up itching all over at 2AM in a strange place is good to have a small jar nearby.

    • Alex Berger
      November 16, 2012

      A great suggestion. I recently started using Tea Tree as well. It is awesome!

  • Red Hunt
    November 15, 2012

    Oh man, bed bugs suck! I was unlucky to have my first encounter with them this summer in a hostel in Canada. I think I was lucky though as I didn’t see them any only realized after the fact I had been bitten during the night…I managed to avoid any need for burning clothes or taking drastic measures 😉

  • Caryn Agnes
    August 26, 2016

    Hi Alex, thanks for sharing this article. I really hate bed bugs too. Very good tips to prevent future bed bugs bites.


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