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Here's how to keep bed bugs from hitching a ride during your holiday travel

A man kneels at the foot of a bed, shining a flashlight on the mattress to inspect for bed bug infestation.
Andrey Popov
Taking precautions like checking hotel rooms before bringing in your luggage can help prevent bed bug infestations during holiday travel.

An estimated 131 million Americans plan to travel this holiday season, which means bed bugs will also be looking to hitch a ride.

Bed bugs do not typically spread diseases, but their bites can cause anything from irritation to serious allergic reactions requiring medical attention.

Pest control brand Terminix recently released a list of its top major cities with the most service calls for bed bug infestations. The Cleveland-Akron area ranked fourth overall. Orkin also ranked Cleveland-Akron fourth on its list released in January.

Tom Barsa, an environmental health specialist with the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, said lists like the ones distributed by Terminix and Orkin indicate the extent and persistence of bed bug infestations.

"It's a great gauge showing that we have a bed bug problem that's not going to go away any time soon, much like any other large city," Barsa said, adding that the ease of travel within Ohio facilitates the spread of bed bugs. Since the state's major cities are connected by major interstates and have large airports, travel in and out of state is easy for people — and bed bugs.

"Bed bugs are very good hitchhikers. They can easily travel with us or be picked up as we travel, so it makes it easy for infestations to be spread throughout the state. Once bed bugs are established in a community, it's very difficult to eliminate them completely due to the high cost of treatments," Barsa noted.

Bed bugs are everywhere and they don't care about demographics, Barsa said. That's why they'll show up anywhere, from multi-family dwellings to high-end hotels. They also don't have a preference when it comes to the weather. Barsa said bed bugs are a structural pest, meaning they're happy as long as they're indoors. The key to preventing them from trekking with you during your travels is to be proactive and take smart precautions.

The first step is to learn how to identify a bed bug so you know what to look for, Barsa said. When staying in hotels, Barsa said he inspects his room for 30 to 45 minutes before bringing his luggage inside. He then leaves his luggage on hard surfaces, such as bathroom countertops, because it's difficult for bed bugs to climb onto hard, smooth surfaces. He also recommended placing all worn clothing in a plastic bag, such as a garbage bag, and make sure it's closed tight.

In this Aug. 25, 2010 photo, a bed bug is found in a mattress at the home of Delores Stewart, in Columbus, Ohio. A resurgence of bedbugs across the U.S. has homeowners and apartment dwellers taking desperate measures to eradicate the tenacious bloodsuckers, with some relying on dangerous outdoor pesticides and fly-by-night exterminators.
Terry Gilliam
The Associated Press
In this Aug. 25, 2010 photo, a bed bug is found in a mattress at the home of Delores Stewart, in Columbus, Ohio. Experts suggest closely examining hotel and rental rooms for bed bugs before even bringing your luggage inside.

"When you get home, anything" — including clothes, linen and luggage — "that you can throw in a dryer on high heat for a whole cycle, do so, because the heat will kill all life cycles of the bed bugs, including the eggs," Barsa added.

If you do have a bed bug infestation, Barsa strongly recommended using pesticides from pest control professionals.

"They have the products that work and the expertise to tell you how and where to use it," Barsa said. "Many of the products in the big box stores and drug stores contain chemicals that only kill a percentage of the bed bug population that we have around today. The remainder of the bedbugs are resistant to that chemical and will not die."

Barsa also warned against using products like foggers or bed bug bombs, which can actually cause infestations to spread. Chemicals in those products don't penetrate areas where bed bugs are hiding to begin with, deep within cracks and crevices, according to Barsa.

"It doesn't even penetrate a sheet on top of a bed," he explained. "Only a portion of them are going to die and the rest of them are going to migrate away from it, causing a spread in the infestation throughout the home."

Barsa said it's hard for Cuyahoga County to track bed bug infestations. In many cases, he said residents will call seeking advice on treating bed bugs, but those consultations aren't counted.

The county has a Bed Bug Task Force, which was formed in 2011. The task force's goal is to educate residents on bed bugs and provide resources on its website, where visitors can also find information on assistance programs for expenses related to hiring pest control services.

Stephanie Metzger-Lawrence is a digital producer for the engaged journalism team at Ideastream Public Media.