Bed Bugs: Exploring their impact on patients, including allergic reactions and psychological effects

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published October 10, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Tourists are concerned about the recent bed bug surge in Paris. Because bed bugs are natural hitchhikers, and because travel is so popular, the pest might be spreading, news outlets report.

  • Experts say that bed bugs can cause psychological impacts in addition to physical reactions to bites, including swelling and redness. Bed bugs, in rare cases, can also cause anaphylaxis.

  • Taking travel precautions is key. The only way to kill bed bugs is by washing and tumble-drying all belongings at 50 degrees Celsius (or 122 degrees Fahrenheit).

Holiday-goers hoping to enjoy Paris’s splendor have faced a siege of bed bugs, with travelers sharing nightmare stories and images across social media.[]

Paris is the world’s most-visited city, boasting over 44 million tourist visits in 2022 alone. But with so many people comes the increased risk of pests, according to the Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l’alimentation, de l’environnement et du travail (ANSES), France’s health and safety agency. In fact, according to the agency, 11% of French households reported having bed bugs between 2017 and 2022,—and bed bugs have become increasingly more resistant to insecticides.[][] 

The pest problem is already spreading across borders, with the Eurostar taking preventative measures to try and stop the bugs from crossing the channel.[] 

What are bed bugs?

Bed bugs are small, reddish-brown crawling bugs that hide within mattresses, mattress seams, bed frames, and furniture. They tend to get into crevices, like walls and floors, and are nocturnal, coming out to feed on blood, particularly when people are asleep in bed. Because bed bugs can get into small, almost-unnoticeable crevices, they can easily travel between places—or even countries—in luggage, backpacks, or clothing.[]

How do bed bugs affect humans?

Mariano Busso, MD, FAAD., a Miami- and LA-based dermatologist, tells MDLinx that bed bugs can wreak health havoc: “They frequently bite in groups, leaving behind tiny, red, irritating welts or lumps on the skin. Although it's hard to resist scratching the impacted areas, the itching may result in skin irritation or infection.”

“Some people can be more allergic to bed bug bites than others,” Dr. Busso says. For example, while some patients may have a few itchy bites, others may experience serious side effects, including hives or even anaphylaxis. 

“In order to treat bed bug bites, it's important to wash the affected areas with soap and water to lower the chance of infection, use over-the-counter itch relief lotions or antihistamines for comfort, use cold compresses to reduce inflammation, and avoid scratching.” And even though a bed bug bite may be small, patients who do experience a severe allergic reaction or infection should seek medical assistance right away, Dr. Busso underscores. 

When traveling, getting a handle on the facts can help quell anxiety, says Mary Ann Covey, a licensed psychologist with Thriveworks in College Station, TX. “Coping with bed bugs when traveling is stressful for anyone,” Dr. Covey says. She recommends that people first do some research, as knowledge can help to alleviate anxiety: “Look at reviews of hotels regarding bed bugs. How are they treating them? Ask before you get there and after you arrive, especially if the area is known for having bed bugs. Figure out what the policy of the hotel is if bed bugs are found in your room. Treat this as a fact-finding mission.”

Dr. Covey knows that bed bugs bring up a lot of anxiety, so she recommends embracing anxiety-management tools while abroad: “Take deep breaths [and] limit your catastrophizing thoughts with facts.”

Experiencing bed bugs can also cause lasting psychological reactions,  says Alea DiGirolamo, LCSW, Founder of ATD Therapy. “People who have bed bugs sometimes begin to have a somatic experience, which is something that they feel within their body. The anxiety that follows can lead to psychosomatic experiences of feeling these bugs on one's skin, even though it may be a normal itch or something that is brushing their skin. The intense reaction of trying to protect one's self will come back in that one instant, leaving them in fight-or-flight mode,” she says. “Constant, intense reactions of fight-or-flight have lasting psychological effects.”

Alea also says that bed bugs can even change how a person interacts with the world. “Depending on where someone may get the bed bug infestation—(such as traveling to Paris at this time)—[this] may bring lasting effects on a larger scale, like fear of travel. In the most extreme cases, this can lead to agoraphobia (the fear of leaving environments that feel safe, such as one's home),” she adds. More so, she says that it can drum up obsessive-compulsive behaviors. 

What to do if you encounter bed bugs while traveling

First, you’ll want to check your hotel or Airbnb. Some people hire bed bug–sniffing dogs, but you’ll also want to look for bites, stains on bed sheets or mattresses, eggs and eggshells, and bugs themselves. The United States Environmental Protection Agency says that the bugs are often “found near the piping, seams, and tags of the mattress and box spring, and in cracks on the bed frame and headboard.” You’ll want to look on chairs and in other furniture, too.

Tamara Lidbom, Owner of Anytime Travel Agency in Peoria, AZ, says that travelers first want to let the hotel management know they have been exposed to bed bugs. 

“This is a must,” Lidbom says. “The hotel management will need to follow their protocol and contact the necessary people to start the pest control process, but also contact anyone else who has stayed in the room within the few weeks beforehand.” 

Next, she says, the best thing to do is wash your clothes in the hottest water possible. The same thing goes for any soft, fabric luggage you’re carrying.

The Bed Bug Doctor, a UK-based bed bug treatment company, tells MDLinx that travelers who encounter bed bugs will need to wash and tumble dry all of their belongings at 50 degrees Celsius (or 122 degrees Fahrenheit). “This is the only way you can kill them,” the company says.

Lidbom also notes that some travel insurance companies may cover costs associated with bed bugs, like trip interruption or trip delay. “If clothes are thrown away because of bed bugs (which many people do because the last thing [they] want is to travel home with this problem), travel insurance agencies can consider this as damage under baggage loss,” she says. That said, Lidbom warns insurance policies and carriers can vary. 

The Bed Bug Doctor also notes that bed bugs are natural hitchhikers: “They will easily travel back to wherever you are, going in your clothes or in your luggage. They can lay five to 20 eggs a week, so you can very quickly have an epidemic of bed bugs on your property.”

Keep your suitcase on a stand rather than on the bed or a carpeted floor to better protect your luggage.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter