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Sometimes you find out too late that your room or bed has bed bugs.

Now I'm not afraid of bed bugs. They don't carry disease so they're far safer than mosquitoes. But I find the itching from the bites so severe that I can't get back to sleep.

Do any of the usual repellents and itch suppressing applications used for mosquitos also work for bedbugs?

  • By the way, the two new tags are intended to be synonyms of old ones - you can vote for them if you wish. – hippietrail Dec 24 '14 at 5:15
  • Wouldn't it help to sleep in long-sleeved clothes and pants? – JonathanReez Dec 25 '14 at 12:43
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    @JonathanReez: I actually wondered that, but if they live in beds they might not mind living in clothes either. Or at least crawling into them to get to good spots to bite ... – hippietrail Dec 25 '14 at 19:27
  • @JonathanReez Bedbugs love fabric. You could sleep in a plastic sleeve of some sort. That might work. :) – JoErNanO Dec 25 '14 at 21:41
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    Never sleep in a plastic sleeve! That is a suffocation hazard. – dotancohen Jan 11 '15 at 18:47
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Kill 'Em All

I am afraid that the usual repellents for mosquitoes and the like will not work for bedbugs. I am also sure that your hands-on experience on the topic testifies this, since I bet you have already tried this solution. :)

There are however a number of commercially available bed bug sprays, ranging from extremely powerful and harmuful for humans, to derived from responsibly sourced plant enzimes. See here for a more-detailed review on the topic. Some of these products come in travel-size, and a lot of references on their effectiveness can be found online by travellers who claimed to have used them.

I don't know how practical it might be for you to adopt this solution. First and foremost, seeing as your travels usually last for long periods (read months) I am wondering the size of the supply you should have to carry with you. This is ever more true in case you are travelling to places where you wouldn't be able to source the product off-the-shelf. Moreover, you must consider the time it takes for the product to act, and the time you need to aerate the bed/room before you can sleep on/in it, to avoid contamination and poisoning.

Wrap the Bed

I just had this post Christmas meal epiphany. You could buy an anti bed bug mattress cover and carry it along on your travels. This could provide an effective barrier against the bed bug infested mattresses you might have to sleep on. Of course there is no one-size-fit-all when it comes to mattress covers. However you can plan ahead depending on the type of accommodation you will be using. Most hostels have single-bed size mattresses anyway.

Identify and Prevent

The other only option you have is to prevent bites by identifying the presence of bed bugs and requesting a clean bed/room. Various guides on the topic can be found on the web. See here for an example. The work-flow to go about this remains constant across them:

  1. Google your hotel/hostel name with the keywords "bed bugs"
  2. Spray your suitcase with bed bug spray, before travelling.
  3. Before entering the room for inspection, leave your suitcase outside, or place in the bathtub, to avoid contamination.
  4. Inspect the room and the bed, use a flashlight. These are the signs you are looking for (courtesy of Masseyservices):

    bed bug traces

    • For the bed: remove sheets, lift the mattress, check the space between bead-board and mattress, check the pillows
    • For the room: check chairs, cushions, cupboards and drawers
  5. Pack your clothes in resealable/vacuum plastic bags
  6. Don't use wardrobes, cupboards or drawers. Keep your clothes in your closed suitcase.
  7. Place the suitcase on an elevated suitcase rack, avoid contact with wooden surfaces (wardrobes, furniture, etc) and fabric (carpet, bed, etc)

In case you find bed bugs, ask for anther room.

On a separate note, I've been scratching myself non-stop whilst writing this answer. The mind is powerful, damned imaginary bug bites. :)

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    Yeah I know all about how to spot them, how to avoid them, and how to get rid of them from the perspective of the accommodation. I just wanted to focus on the repellant and itch points for when, without long stories, you end up in a place with bedbugs for a night and can't avoid it. Otherwise we can end up with "everything about bed bugs" as answers to all bedbug questions. – hippietrail Dec 25 '14 at 4:46
  • @hippietrail I think you should try repellant sprays going from the most human-friendly to the least. This is to avoid having to wait hours, if not days, for the chemical to vanish before being able to use the bed/room safely, as you test for potential solutions. – JoErNanO Dec 25 '14 at 11:20
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    I have a legal guide book for landlords and they dedicate an entire chapter on bedbug issues. All those precautions listed above are perfect; I would add that if you do see signs of bed bugs, the room next door is NOT a valid option. – Mark Stewart Aug 3 '16 at 2:25
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If you have to put up with it, WikiHow has an article that summarises how to relieve the bites. I was researching this back in July for my first bugs experience :/

They cover a few steps:

  • Detect bite(s)
  • Take a shower immediately, using antibacterial soap - helps relieve itching
  • Apply either an anti-septic cream or lotion
  • Rub ice cubes to a) stop swelling and b) relieve itching
  • Take Benadryl or other anti-histamine to prevent itching
  • Consider gels like aloe vera
  • use cotton balls to wipe alcohol on area affected

Some of these will work for you, others won't - weirdly, just seems that there's no perfect cure, and maybe that depends on the type and location of bite, or your reaction to the bites. But give them a try.

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    Do antibacterial soap and antiseptic actually relieve the itching or do they just ease the mind of the person who is ignorant of the fact that bedbugs don't spread any diseases? – hippietrail Jan 24 '18 at 21:44
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I have the unfortunate combination of being very sensitive to bed bugs (bites while sleeping wake me in about 30 seconds, sometimes quickly enough to catch the bug red-jawed, then consistently swell about 2-3cm in diameter...) and travelling a lot recently in parts of Africa and London that have bed bug problems. On the plus side, it means I can answer this question...

I've found most forms of insect repellent including DEET-based ones to be somewhat helpful, but not enough to rely on them alone. Whereas mozzies might be deterred from flying near you, hungry bed bugs will find a way to reach that spot you missed unless you take other precautions. That spot might well be inside your clothes...

Turns out there's proper evidence to back up my experience that bedbugs don't like DEET:

Repellency of selected chemicals against the bed bug (Hemiptera: Cimicidae)

...[DEET] provided a high level of repellency against bed bugs... At 25% concentration, DEET-treated fabric surface remained highly repellent to bed bugs for a 14-d period...

...Isolongifolenone and isolongifolanone, two natural products and recently reported insect repellents, exhibited strong repellent property against bed bugs but at significantly lower levels than DEET. Three novel potential repellent compounds discovered by Bedoukian Research Inc. (Danbury, CT) exhibited similar level of repellency and longevity as DEET for repelling bed bugs...

Here's what's saved me when I've discovered the hard way that my bed for the night is infested at 2am:

  • Bed bugs dislike light, so having a light is a good short-term deterrent. Don't rely on it too much though - the more bugs there are, and the more times you do this, the less of a deterrent it'll be (in some chronically infested places I've even seen bedbugs cheerfully strolling along white walls in daylight - that's rare though). Ideally, there'll be something like a desk lamp: get rid of any blankets etc, point it at the bed, and try to sleep curled up in the middle so they'd have to go further through the light to reach you. It'll help for one or two nights, unless the bugs are famished.
  • A circle of insect repellent on the bedsheets around you also helps. Be careful if using DEET because it can melt some synthetic fabrics, test on a small corner first. This isn't just to stop them biting, it's to discourage them from getting somewhere they can stow away until any repellent you're wearing wears off, or, worse, until you get back home...
  • If you need a pillow, check one very thoroughly for bugs, especially folds, seams and inside corners, then use only that one. Get others off the bed to give them less cover. Keep the pillow you use away from the headboard or edge of the bed within the circle of light and insect repellent - if you're alone, sleeping diagonally helps.
  • Cover up as best you can. The best option is an insect-repellent-treated sleeping bag liner (few places sell them but you can buy fabric treating insect repellent (example) in many outdoors shops - be aware that some of the repellents used for these have "exhibited low levels of repellency against bed bugs" - deterring around ~30%, similar to 2.5% DEET whereas 5% DEET deterred 100% in the same test. Better than nothing, not a substitute for DEET, but a handy extra line of defence. Pyjamas or similar light clothes tucked in at the waist and tucked in to socks also gives them less options. Tuck sleeves into gloves if possible. Use insect repellent on hands, head, shoulders and feet (feet because they can usually bite through socks - the socks are to stop the buggers strolling along up inside your bedclothes...)

Doing all of the above gave me an uninterrupted 6 hours sleep with no bites (after the initial 2am jolt) in a very badly infested place recently.

Also make sure you don't take them home with you:

  • Keep clothes, luggage etc as far away from the bed somewhere in the room you seldom go (i.e. less CO2 from your breath to entice curious bugs), ideally away from bedbug-friendly surfaces. Bathroom is ideal if there is one.
  • Consider some insect repellent on or around your luggage if it won't damage it or the furnishings (again, be careful with DEET)
  • Seal and close everything that can be sealed and closed, don't make it easy for them
  • Wash thoroughly!
  • Change clothes before going anywhere near your next bed. Wash them if you can, seal them in a tied bag if you can't, and check accessories like belts
  • After arriving at your next destination, keep everything as far from your bed as possible, wash what you can from your luggage, and check corners and seams in your luggage for stealthy stowaways.

If you've got access to something like a balcony or shed or similar, for an extra precaution, consider putting luggage and fabric items you had with you in "quarantine" out there for a few days, with the nearest doors and windows to your home sealed so they don't have any easy human-scented route in.


Regarding itch suppression, I'm a bit of an extreme case... so results may differ. For me, regular bite creams like anti-histamines don't seem to help much (no reason not to try them though, just don't rely on them). I've had best results with:

  • Rubbing nearly dry soap (or, if regular bars of soap aren't available, a blob of undiluted hand soap) on the bite and leaving it. Don't know why this works, but it helps a little.
  • Those bite "clickers" that give the bite a very small static electric shock. Again, no idea why they work, but they help a little
  • Deet's most important mechanism is actually not keeping away the insects, but it stops them from biting you even when they reach. (Hence why it works well on ticks as well as mosquitos). No idea if that works on bedbugs though. – CMaster Aug 2 '16 at 17:39
  • Are you sure? According to wikipedia it's the smell that deters them. Matches my experience, that DEET makes them less likely to buzz around me as well as less likely to bite. Apparently it's highly effective against bed bugs (good to know!) – user568458 Aug 2 '16 at 17:44
  • @CMaster just added a scientific paper confirming that treating fabrics with DEET deters bed bugs from crossing those fabrics for 14 days, even when baited with CO2 ! Nice! – user568458 Aug 2 '16 at 17:48
  • This bite clicker called mosquit has been an absolute life saver for me -- although only for mosquito bites not sure about bed bugs. Also check Bite Away. – chx Aug 2 '16 at 18:08
  • @chx that Riemser one is... terrifying! It looks like the sort of thing our future robot overlords will use to suppress human uprisings. – user568458 Aug 2 '16 at 18:20
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I must've asked this question before having more bedbug experiences because now I have found a very simple answer.

At least for me, the itch always goes away when I take a shower. I just use whatever regular soap or shower gel I happen to have and that's always worked.

Of course if you've only been bitten on a hand or wrist you can just wash your hands instead of a full shower.

Now it won't prevent further bites when you go back to bed, so if you get woken up by another itch, do the same again.

I've only ever had bedbugs in tropical regions where having a shower in the middle of the night has been refreshing anyway.

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