Bed Bugs Don’t Fly…Unless on an Airplane

A recent article last week in Canadian headlines brought attention to the possibility of bed bugs hitchhiking on planes.

Fellow entomologist, Joe Ballenger asked via Twitter how common incidents were of bed bugs on planes. I don’t know the statistics or if there is a document that records this data. From what I know about bed bugs, it is completely possible and frightening to think about.

The following post is a summary and expansion of some of the tweets @JodyBugsMeUNL that took place over the past few days regarding bed bugs and airplanes.

Can bed bugs infest a plane? Yes it is possible, especially if there is a constant stream of sleeping hosts. An airplane is basically a moving hotel room with resources to feed upon and places to hide.

How did they get there? We bring them on board on our bags.

Bed bugs crawling on a backpack

Bed bugs crawling on a backpack. Photo: Jody Green

What do they want? Food and shelter. Unfortunately for us, an airplane full of passengers provides both of these things.

Where will they hide? Anywhere – seats, carpeting, cracks and crevices of aircraft, books, bags, purses, suitcases, etc.

Do airlines clean their airplanes? Yes, but not to the level needed to find the microhabitats where bed bugs harbor. In order to locate the cracks and crevices, equipment would need to be dismantled, so the plane would have to be grounded and free of passengers. It would take hours and this is not possible between flights.

Could airlines use insecticides to prevent or kill bed bugs? Aircraft disinsections are described the World Health Organization and U.S. Department of Transportation to protect people from mosquito-vectored diseases. Due to insecticide resistance of pyrethroids in bed bugs populations, this means they are not knocked out by this process. Spraying pesticides inside aircrafts to prevent bed bug infestations is not feasible.

What does a bed bug look like? Bed bugs can be a variety of shapes and sizes, young bugs can be as tiny as a poppy seed and adult bed bugs can be comparable to an apple seed. They range from a light to reddish brown when hungry, to a deep, red-color when full of blood.

Bed Bug Infographic

First page of 3-page Bed Bug Infographic by Drs. Jody Green and. Jonathan Larson.

What is the difference between an introduction and an infestation? An introduction can occur when someone accidentally drops a bed bug. An infestation is a location where bed bugs are living, breeding and have a harborage close to a human host. This harborage may have bed bugs of all life stages, eggs, feces, and shed exoskeletons. Bed bugs may be picked up from an infested location and then unintentionally introduced to another location. It is important to remember that just because a bed bug is found, does not automatically indicate an infestation.

Infestation of bed bugs on pocket of backpack

Bed bug infestation found on front pocket of backpack. Photo: Jody Green

Do bed bugs spread any disease? Bed bugs do not transmit disease to humans. Their bites are more of an annoyance, especially for individuals who suffer a negative reaction to the compounds they inject before they feed.

What do bed bug bites look like? It is impossible to identify the pest based on the bite alone. Everyone one of us has an immune system that reacts differently to a stimulus whether it’s an insect bite or an allergen. Reactions can be immediate, delayed (hours, days or weeks), localized at site of bite, or systemic throughout the body. For most people, treating the symptoms will provide some relief, but in severe cases, it is best to seek medical attention.

What can I do to protect myself from bites when I travel? To avoid bites on long flights, it would be best to cover exposed skin. They cannot feed through most clothing materials and prefer bare skin. There are seat covers you can purchase as well as sleep sacks, which may provide that extra layer. This would be a better alternative than using the airline blankets and pillows. To protect carry-on luggage while under the seat, use a bag that is plastic, washable, or cover with a plastic bag.

What should I do with my luggage when I get to my hotel room? Refrain from putting luggage or bags on the bed or floor. If using the luggage holder, pull it away from the wall and inspect it for signs of bed bugs. You can also keep luggage on bathroom counter, where it is well-lit and further from the bed. If you need to head out before doing a quick inspection of the hotel room, place luggage in bathtub. If possible keep clothing out of dresser drawers and luggage zipped when not in use. Bag dirty clothes rather than tossing them on the floor. In a recent study, bed bugs were found to be attracted to scent of humans from dirty laundry compared to clean clothing.

Bed bug photo

Assortment of human bed bugs. Photo: Jody Green

How and where do I look to check my hotel room for bed bugs? The idea is to check the places that are least likely to be disturbed, by patrons and housekeeping staff. This would include the box spring (pull back the fitted sheets and look at the seams, corners, folds), joints of the bed frame, and nightstand crevices. If you find a bed bug, collect it in a cup or baggy and take it to the front desk. They should know how to identify a bed bug and have a protocol to follow, which should include moving you to a different room.

When returning home from traveling, what precautions can I take to prevent from bringing bed bugs home? Inspect luggage for any evident hitchhiking bed bugs and then unpack bags outside or in the garage. Grab a laundry basket and take clothes directly from luggage to washing machine to wash and/or dry on high heat (120°F for 20-30 minutes). If something is suspicious (i.e. shoes or a book) place item in a plastic bag and freeze (0°F for 4 days). Inspect hard items (i.e. toiletries) before bringing them inside and store luggage away (i.e. garage or basement storage room) from any bedroom in use. Increasing the distance from the point of introduction to host-resting area decreases the chance that a hitchhiking bed bug will survive to feed.

Take home message: Despite what may happen when you travel, the ultimate goal is to stop bed bugs from entering your home. If the steps outlined in this post seem time consuming and fanatical, it is nothing compared to the pain-staking effort, time, and financial burden that comes with battling a bed bug infestation in the home.

Stay calm and respect the critters,


Please check out the bed bug resources at Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County


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