Not everything about traveling is nice, in particular, bug bites. Bed bugs or sand fleas can really ruin a trip (trust me). Read my advice & Susanna’s tips on how to prevent and kill bed bugs / sandfleas while on vacation. Curing the itch can be harder with a language barrier, but you’ll be glad to come home bug-free.
Bed Bugs: YUCK.
I wanted to love this hostel that came HIGHLY recommended by every backpacker that I met somewhere in the Balkans, but the second that I laid down in a bed, I KNEW there was something up when I started itching like crazy. It was October, so it was too late in the year to be mosquitos and it seemed quite suspicious that I was SO itchy.
I managed to cocoon myself in the blanket, which helped a bit, but still did not stop the itching. I had no idea what was happening, why I was covered in bites…until a doctor confirmed it. Unfortunately, I had just arrived back home and brought my bed bug covered bag inside my apartment, something that I’d deeply regret.
What are bed bugs?
Bed Bugs are parasitic insects that feed on your blood. Despite what you might think, you can even get them in high-end hotels. They are visible to the human eye as adults and it takes 6-10 days for the eggs to hatch. If you suspect you have them, act fast! They are unlikely to carry diseases.
Symptoms: You’ll know when you start itching like mad shortly after lying down, most likely at night. Your bites will be closest to where you have open skin showing and they’re most often in a row (although this is not always true). I had an allergic reaction to them, but they can appear similar to general insect & mosquito bites if you’re also allergic.
How to Prevent Bed Bugs
Check for recent reviews mentioning bed bugs and check the room: specifically the sofa, mattress, and the lights/outlets close to the bed/sofa prior to agreeing to take it. Often, bed bugs are isolated to a small area (e.g. one room), so if you find evidence of bed bugs, notify the management immediately and check the next room carefully.
Whenever you check into a hotel room, leave your bag outside, check under the mattress and/or sofa for black splotches that look like mold on the wood/mattress.
Do not PLACE your bag on the ground OR carpet and keep your stuff out of your room until you check it carefully. Avoid placing things on the bed or on the ground.
How to deal with bedbugs at hotels: Go directly to hotel/hostel management. Ask for a refund and/or help cleaning your clothes.
Check yourself for LIVE bed bugs before isolating everything you’re wearing. Isolateall items that you wore in the bed as well as anything that went on the bed / nearby carpet.
Put in a sealed bag until you can deal with them properly. For the itch, use Benadryl [diphenhydramine] OR an anti-itch cream.
Although you might want to leave your accommodations, leaving is worse since you might be potentially bringing your new “friends” to new place. Wash everything and move rooms to avoid infecting new accommodations (please!). It might take 1-4 days for the bites to show.
Know where you HAVE bites and check daily to see if you’re getting new bites. As long as you’re not getting new bites, you’re in the clear after a week days. If not, you need to clean your stuff again .
How to kill bed bugs
The freezer does NOT kill bed bugs. Isolation for 100-300 days can work, but the fastest effective way is HEAT. Isolate your infected items in a SEALED bags until you can wash them at 45 degrees C / 118 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes to kill adult bed bugs.
Per Dr. Miller, a researcher on bed bugs, a loose filled dryer on HIGH can kill bed bugs (of all stages) within 30 minutes.
So if you’re in a warm place, leaving your clothes in the hot sun for hours might work. If it’s not washable, you’ll need a steam cleaner to steam it and/or get an exterminator to help you. (More information here.)
You’re probably better off throwing out what you don’t need, isolating your contaminated clothes and/or anything that was inside the room, getting new clothes to wear, buying a new suitcase (they can live in the zippers/corners!), washing your backpack, and making sure that anything that came into touch with your contaminated stuff is isolated/cleaned.
If you SUSPECT you have bed bugs, treat it accordingly: Isolate in a sealed bag, avoid bringing it inside your house/accommodations, and clean your stuff.
Thank you to Susanna from Wandering Chocobo for sharing her terrible experience.
Bocos del Toro in Panama is a pretty wild place. With my luck, of course, the one day I decided to take a relaxing snooze on the beach is the day I woke up with a horrible itch. I looked down at my legs covered in large red blotches and shuddered, fighting the urge to rip my own skin off from itching.
I did what any normal backpacker would do and fought through the pain for a few days assuming it would go away. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer. I went to the local pharmacy and explained in broken Spanish my situation. The attendant looked at me and handed me a bottle of clear nail polish.
Confused, I tried again. “She clearly misunderstood,” I thought. I was the one who misunderstood. My mouth dropped when I realized what I was supposed to do. I asked where the alcohol was and grabbed a bottle of rum and purchased it along with some soothing cream and the nail polish.
I went back to my hostel and began chugging booze as liquid courage is the key. I then dotted each bite with the nail polish. This was supposed to suffocate them. I later learned that not all my bites needed to be covered in the polish as there is a difference between male and female fleas, but after several hours I definitely had a few bugs to pick out of my own skin. Trust me, the rum helps.
What are sand fleas?
Sand fleas live in the sand in tropical and subtropical climates. They’re the smallest flea and tend to bite feet and ankles- between the toes is their favorite spot. They can’t jump very high, so unless you’re laying down you will only get the bites on your lower legs. The males will bite a chunk out of you and seal you up with venom. This causes inflammation, redness, oozing of fluids and itching.
How do I cure the sand flea bites?
Well if you only have male bites, I suggest the standard treatment of applying cortisone or anti itch cream, you may need an antihistamine as well. If you are not near a pharmacy you can try the standard oatmeal or baking soda wash/bath.
If you have female bites, this is where it gets fun. You need to get the females out before they breed in your skin and cause serious infection and loss of skin!
Any sealant, like nail polish, works to suffocate them and some people suggest “drowning” them by covering yourself in oil for several hours. If any symptoms continue, you have an allergic reaction or you can not get the fleas out, please see a doctor.
How can I prevent sand flea in the first place?
Sand fleas tend to be very active after it rains, dawn and dusk. Do not go to the beach during these times to avoid serious bites. As nice as it may look, laying on some beaches is not a good idea, as your entire body will be covered vs your legs.
If you’re really paranoid perhaps wearing long loose pants to the beach is a good idea. Bring insect repellent. Talk to your hostel or hotel as they may know if your location and beach is infested with this little buggers.