Next time you're heading home from a relaxing vacation, it might be wise to double check to make sure a group of freeloading bedbugs hasn't decided to hitch a ride and become a real pest, particularly in the United Kingdom.
According to statistics from Rentokil, a U.K.-based pest control company, there has been a 40 percent increase in the number of bedbug complaints around the country in the past year as people unknowingly bring them home after traveling abroad.
Rentokil's technical director, Savvas Othon, said the increased complaints are largely a product of increased global travel, as the bedbugs are often found in hotels, where the insects and their eggs latch on to travelers' clothes and suitcases.
Bedbugs are small, wingless blood-sucking insects that respond to body heat. Their bites result in painful, itchy welts, and they can be transported quite easily by getting into travelers' baggage, especially if left underneath beds, and their clothing.
Because they lay up to 4,000 eggs in a lifetime, or about two to three a day, it's very hard to prevent bedbug infestations from growing once the bugs have gotten into your luggage or lodged themselves in bedding. Airplanes and hotels, with their steady stream of passengers and overnight guests, are fertile breeding grounds.
David New of Bed-Bugs.co.uk, a public advisory center and bedbug treatment company, said that "conditions are absolutely right" on an airplane for bedbugs to thrive.
New also said that infestations in Britain could be attributed to "one particular group who had recently had a lot of worker migration into the country," though he refused to specify which group he was referring to.
New spoke about speculation that bug infestations could increase following the Beijing Olympics as athletes returned to their home countries.
"Ninety five percent of hotels in Sydney had at least one room infested" during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he said.
David Cain, managing director at Bed-Bugs.co.uk, said it's difficult to pinpoint a specific place where bedbugs originate. He noted that they can appear after travel, ranging anywhere from the Middle East to New York to Toronto.
"They are now cropping up over the length and breadth of major cities in the U.K. and transportation hubs," he said.
Cain said there has been a "definite resurgence in bedbugs from 2000" and that the growth has been "exponential." He said his company went from receiving three to five complaints a day in 2005 to fielding as many as 16 calls a day today.
Of course, more bedbugs mean bigger business for companies like Rentokil.
"We've seen a 50 percent increase in our contracts," said Othon.
Bedbugs Freeload on Global Travel
Rentokil has sought to relieve the problem by field testing a new chemical to deal with the bedbug problem. But chemical spraying of bedbugs is only effective until those insects develop a resistance to a particular spray.
The tests are meant to find "a new way of applying the chemical" so that the problem can be tackled effectively, Othon said.
But the new product is not yet available, meaning that current treatment methods might not be 100 percent effective if the bugs have developed a resistance.
How Can You Spot Them?
Although the name "bedbug" conjures up images of insects crawling under the sheet covers, this is not necessarily or even usually the case. Othon explained that the Rentokil staff was trained to inspect the entire room, including common areas such as the space around night stands.
"You can find them in five-star hotels as well as backpacker hostels," Cain said. "It is an exposure issue, not a cleanliness issue."
Cain, who holds a degree in molecular biology, said that the main cause of spread has been a lack of public awareness that there is indeed a problem.
He believes the way to increase prevention is for people to become educated about the problem and learn how to monitor their surroundings.
And of course, there's always the eyeball test.
According to Bed-Bugs.co.uk's description, bedbugs are "brown to reddish-brown, oval-shaped, flattened and about 3/16 inch to 1/5 inch long and can often be found in seams and folds of mattresses."
How can you prevent coming face to face with this public menace? Cain's organization said that infected items most certainly shouldn't be brought home and that "inspection of secondhand beds, bedding and furniture is key."
If the source of the bugs is not found, attempts to resolve the problem will be futile.