Bed Bugs and other critters
Never heard of bed bugs?
Take a look at this page and prepare accordingly.
It’s better to endure some ‘yikes’ and visually induced itch than to encounter these critters unprepared during your walks!
The Spanish word for bed bugs is ‘chinches’. Learn this word by heart, since it will come in handy if you overhear someone at an albergue talking about bed bugs. It will also help you to explain your issue in case you encounter them.
These blood-sucking critters are probably annoyance numero 1 on the Camino. Not by frequency though. It is not that common as you think to be confronted with them. However, IF these critters find you, you’re in for a treat… How do you know you ‘have’ them? First of all, you don’t have them. You got into a bed/environment where they hide and wait until their room service arrives (yes, that’s you). During the night they become active and find a nice spot on your skin to start sucking. They only need 5 to 10 minutes to ingest their meal. You usually won’t feel the bite since they produce a painkilling substance together with the usual anti-coagulant substance. The result in the next morning is a red spot with some or no swelling and some or not itching: it all depends whether or not you are allergic to their bite. You might look worse depending on your sensitivity level.
Getting rid of bedbugs
Once you have them, you’re in for a cleaning treat….: they can’t stand insect spray, hot sun and hot water. So here it goes, a compilation of the advice out there passed on from pilgrim to pilgrim:
- Turn everything inside out and spray it with mosquito spray (buy at pharmacy), hang it in the sun and hot-wash it.
- If you can get an iron somewhere, a good way to get the fabric as hot as possible (see labels) is to iron it.
- Spray the bottom and top of the mattress you are planning to sleep on. Wait at least 10 minutes to see if any bugs come out.
- A particularly difficult item to clean is the backpack itself…: the most heard advice is to put your back into a big grey bin bag, tie the opening up, and leave it in the hot sun on a bright sunny day. It should kill the little critters.
- Another advice from pilgrims, although it will only be possible to do at home probably, is to put the affected gear in the refrigerator.
Buen camino, and… don’t let the bed bugs bite!
- before picking a bed in the albergue or settling in in your hostel room, take your backpack and put it in the bathroom (it is far less likely there’ll be bed bugs there, they don’t like tiles). Give the bed a thorough inspection. They like corners and seams of the bedding. Continue your inspection in the areas around the bed: cushions, couches, books, closets, etc. If you find any: take your backpack and report back to the reception / owner of the albergue in a discrete way (they are not happy with them either, and having all the customers run away is not the way to the perfect solution – they should get a chance to solve the problem without ruining a total month of income…).
- keep your backpack off the ground! The best way to not get rid of bedbugs once you have them is to carry them around with you… Most albergues have lockers. Use them, if only for this purpose!
- use your own personal sleeping sheet: it is easier to treat such a single sheet with anti-insect solution than to treat a complete sleeping bag.
- keep your belongings packed in plastic when you are not using them.
The Spanish word for ticks is ‘garrapatas’.
One of the other bugs that you might encounter are the commonly known ‘ticks’. Although a tick-bite can be a bit scary and not everyone is as good with tick-tweezers, the most important signs and symptoms after a tick-bite to keep an eye on are the ones indicating a possible infection with Lyme Disease (bull’s-eye pattern).
First things first though: remove the tick:
- use fine-tipped tweezers or special tick-tweezers (you’ve got a pair in your first-aid kit right?!) and grasp the little bugger as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
- Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
- After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
- Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick with your fingers.
Keep a close watch for symptoms that might indicate Lyme Disease:
A small, red bump that grows into a large, plastic-feeling bull’s-eye after a few days.
If this happens, get medical attention immediately. You’ll be prescribed antibiotics that will kill the infection. The rash can take a few days to clear up.
This can’t be said enough times: untreated Lyme disease can lead to serious complications. Don’t leave it up to ‘chances’. Get to a doctor if the small patch gets bigger.
Prevent Lyme disease: wear long pants and long sleeves if you are going to be crossing wooded areas. Use DEET insect repellent. Remove a tick as soon as possible, it takes 36 to 48 hours for the bug to infect you).
The Spanish word for chiggers is ‘niguas’.
Tiny pink or flesh-colored bumps that itch a lot might indicate you have been bitten by chiggers: small bites that live in tall grass and latch onto your skin and bite you.
Not a biggie: an OTC anti-itch cream will do the trick and you might want to consider some oral antihistamine. You’ll be itch-free in less than a week.
Use DEET-based products to repel them and don’t walk through high grass if you can avoid it.
- Severe itching
- Red pimple-like bumps or hives
Itching usually occurs several hours after the chiggers attach to the skin. The bite is painless.
A skin rash may appear on the parts of the body that were exposed to the sun. It may stop where the underwear meets the legs. This is often a clue that the rash is due to chigger bites.
A warm, soapy shower will wash away the chiggers from your skin. If you can do this within a few hours of encountering chiggers, the symptoms can be greatly reduced. If you wait too long to bathe, your chigger bites will continue to develop even though the chigger is no longer feeding on you. In severe cases you should seek medical attention.
If you get chiggers, do not wear the same clothes, socks or shoes again without washing them.
Not dangerous but very annoying
Often confused with ticks these little critters do not transmit diseases in Europe nor in US (they do in Asia).
Chiggers are tiny, 6-legged wingless organisms (larvae) that mature to become a type of mite. Chiggers are found in tall grass and weeds. Their bite causes severe itching.
Contrary to a popular belief, chiggers do not burrow under your skin. Chiggers feed by inserting their mouth parts into your skin at a pore or hair follicle and inject their saliva. The saliva dissolves your skin cells which the chiggers then ingest. Itching occurs within 3 to 6 hours followed by the familiar red welts. The welts continue to develop and the itching becomes severe over the next 2 to 3 days. After a few days the chiggers will drop off
Unlike the tick, a chigger is a (larvae of the) mite, also called harvest mite or red mite. They are much smaller than ticks.
The Spanish word for mosquito is ‘mosquito’… giggle. I guess we invented them ;-).
A female mosquito locks onto her victim using a combination of scent, exhaled carbon dioxide, and chemicals in the person’s sweat. When she finds a suitable meal, she lands on an area of exposed skin and inserts her proboscis to draw the victim’s blood. The common symptoms — a telltale red bump and itching — aren’t caused by the bite itself, but by a reaction of the body’s immune system to proteins in the mosquito’s saliva.
Prevention is the best approach. Mosquitoes require standing or stagnant water to breed. Avoid standing water especially at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active, if possible.
Other ways to prevent mosquito bites:
- wearing protective, light-colored clothing such as long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks, and a wide-brimmed hat
- using citronella-scent in hiking accessories, such as a Parakito-bracelet.
It’s also important to apply insect repellents containing DEET. It’s recommended to use products that have at least between 6 and 25 percent DEET. These provide up to six hours of protection. Follow directions carefully, and reapply after swimming or sweating. Since repellents can also cause adverse skin reactions, test the product on a small area of your arm and wait 24 hours to make sure it’s safe to use on your entire body.
Even the best preventative measures probably won’t protect you from all bites. A cold pack, ice cubes or a cool bath without soap may help relieve symptoms as well.
For the normal itch without any serious allergic symptoms we use always the after-bite cream of Jaico. It provides immediate relief.
For more serious allergic reactions, the following treatments may be used:
- oral antihistamines (such as Benadryl or Claritin)
- topical anti-itch lotion or benzocaine
- a cool bath without soap
- an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) to carry on-hand in case of anaphylaxis
This post is also available in: Dutch