Bloodthirsty bedbugs are infesting retail spaces, causing some New York City stores -- including Victoria's Secret, Hollister, and Abercrombie & Fitch -- to shut down temporarily. The little suckers even invaded the New York offices of Elle magazine and have taken up residence in the Empire State Building, too.
But it's not just a New York problem – bedbugs have gone national. A recent survey conducted by the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) and the University of Kentucky found that 95 percent of all U.S. pest professionals surveyed reported treating bedbug infestations in the last year alone, confirming that bedbugs are on the rise.
"From our recent survey, we learned that a growing number of pest professionals have found bedbugs in hospitals [12 percent], nursing homes [24 percent], office buildings [17 percent], transportation [9 percent], laundries [5 percent], and movie theaters [4 percent]."
Ron Harrison, technical director of pest-control company Orkin, tells StyleList bedbugs have been a nightmare in the hospitality industry for four or five years, and in multifamily housing for about two and half years.
"It's not something people talk about because the last thing you want to do is advertise that you have bedbugs in your hotel," he says. "It's been a dirty secret that's been around a long time."
Harrison says office buildings have felt the bedbug bite in the last few months, gaining publicity because offices don't carry the same stigmas as hotels and homes.
"I don't think it's, Oh, a month ago someone sprinkled bedbugs all over the United States and now it's a monster," he says. "These few incidents of bedbugs being in retail-type situations, and people [being] willing to talk about it, have led to this well-deserved discussion that we ought to have been having years ago."
Henriksen adds that retail stores have exactly what bedbugs need to survive: people.
"The flow of foot traffic in and out of these public places allows for bedbugs to hitchhike on people," she says. "Bedbugs can survive for up to one year without a blood meal and can remain hidden for long periods of time, which can cause infestations to go undetected."
But before you start doing all your shopping online, Henriksen says retail stores are no more or less likely to harbor an infestation than any other place where humans spend time. There are, however, bedbug signs to look for in stores:
- When trying on clothing, be aware of stains that seem unusual. These could be telltale blood spots left by feeding bedbugs.
- Inspect clothing carefully before purchasing. Pay particular attention to the inside seams, looking for signs of sticky white eggs, shed skins, and the bugs themselves. Notify the store manager immediately if you suspect bedbugs.
- Hang your clothes on hooks rather than lay them across cushioned seats in dressing rooms or on the carpeted floor, as these are bedbug havens.
- Shake out articles outside before bringing them into your home.
What makes them unique, he says, is that they're man's pests (you won't find them on animals), they have a propensity to migrate, and they're blood eaters.
"They eat nothing else," he says. "That indicates that it doesn't matter whether you're clean or dirty, or a one-star or five-star hotel. If a person's there, they'll be eating you."
So, you found one in your closet. Now what? Bedbug-infested clothing, bedding, and other textiles that are washable can be laundered and dried at high temperatures (120°F minimum) to eliminate bedbugs, Bill Balek, director of environmental services for ISSA, the Worldwide Industry Cleaning Association, tells StyleList.
"Alternatively, clothing and other textiles designated as 'dry-clean only' can be placed in a dryer at moderate [less than 160°F] settings for 10 to 20 minutes," he says. "This treatment will kill the bedbugs, and the garments will not be harmed, provided they are dry before being placed in the dryer."
Balek says sending clothes to the dry cleaner also can get rid of bedbugs, but there's a risk of infesting the establishment and spreading the bugs when infected items are de-bagged, tagged, and sorted.
"If you decide to use a dry cleaner, please be courteous and place your clothes in a sealed bag," he says. "Let the proprietors know you've got bedbugs and that they should keep your clothing away from the clothes of others until it has been cleaned. No need to spread the infestation around the neighborhood."
Balek also advises asking dry cleaners to use the most aggressive processes available to ensure bedbugs don't survive. "However, any standard dry-cleaning method should do the trick," he says.
Of course, it makes sense to take precautions to avoid bedbugs in the first place, Balek says. Some practices he recommends:
- Maintain your household in a clean and sanitary condition.
- Remove clutter where bedbugs can hide.
- Avoid bringing secondhand furniture (especially mattresses and box springs) or similar items deposited curbside into the household.
- Travelers should get in the habit of inspecting their hotel bed for signs of bedbugs, including examining the bedsheets, especially along the head of the bed. If bedbugs are discovered, request another room in another part of the hotel.
- Vacuum your suitcases after returning from a trip.
- Periodically inspect bedding and clothing. Check your bedding for telltale blood spots.
"Flush it down the toilet or throw it out in the yard and a bird will eat it," he says. "The problem is, if you haven't been paying attention, then that one -- if it's a pregnant female -- has started laying eggs, and now you've got a population."
The nocturnal bedbugs typically like to live close to the "blood meal," Harrison says.
"So if you check the mattress and the furniture close to the bed and the headboard and the pictures close to the bed, and you see no bedbugs or fecal smears -- they defecate close to where you're hanging out -- then I think you're OK. But if you find multiple ones, eggs and nymphs on your mattress or box spring... you need to have a professional come in that has experience with bedbugs. You don't want to fool with someone who hasn't been dealing with this."
Professional treatments from Orkin, Harrison says, include a chemical treatment or a whole-room heat treatment, in which the room is heated to 120 degrees, killing all the bedbugs in that room. Prices vary, depending on the degree of infestation and size of the room or rooms, but generally range from a few hundred dollars for a residential treatment to $750 to $3,000 for commercial infestations.
Keys to avoiding a bedbug infestation are education and vigilance, Henriksen says.
"As a consumer, it is important to be aware of how you can best protect yourself from an infestation," she says. "But there is no need to limit your normal activity or drastically alter your lifestyle."
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Read more on bedbugs here.