Healthy living

Bed bugs

Bed bug
Source: Common bed bug (courtesy of Stephen Doggett, Department of Medical Entomology Westmead Hospital, NSW.

Bed bugs are small parasitic insects that feed on human blood by piercing the skin. They do not live on humans or burrow into the skin.

They are very mobile, but only move short distances to feed, so are commonly found near food (blood) sourc​es.

Generally, bed bugs are more of a nuisance pest than a serious health threat. There is no evidence to indicate that they transmit any infectious disease.

Bed bugs can live up to six months at room temperature and can survive for long periods without a blood meal.

They usually feed during the night, but bed bugs can be opportunistic feeders (feed whenever the opportunity is present).

What do bed bugs look like?

Adult bed bugs are 4–6mm in length, oval in shape and are dark reddish brown in colour. Juveniles are 1–5mm in length, depending on the growth stage and are cream in colour, becoming red to blackish after taking a blood meal. Adult females can lay up to three eggs per day, which hatch within 10 days (longer in cooler temperature). Eggs are creamy white and about 1mm in length.

Where are bed bugs found?

Bed bugs have dorsoventrally flatten (thin) bodies, thus they can stay well hidden in narrow crevices and cracks.

Bed bugs are most commonly found on mattresses, particularly along the stitched edges where there are folds that help to conceal them.

They are also found:

  • on bed frames
  • in bed side furniture
  • in picture frames
  • behind wall paper
  • in cracks and crevices or other areas of a room that will provide them with protection, such as carpet edges, behind skirting boards or between wooden floor boards.
What are the signs of a bed bug infestation?

Signs that you may have a bed bug infestation include:

  • live bed bugs or cast skins
  • eggs
  • dark spots of bed bug excrement or blood. These can be found on bed sheets, mattresses, skirting boards or in cracks and crevices
  • distinct 'bug' smell can detect if the infestation is severe
  • you may also notice bite marks on your skin, although 1 in 5 people bitten may not experience a reaction and the bite may not be noticed for up to 9 days. Skin reactions include redness, swelling and wheals up to 2cm in size, itching and burning sensations. Humans tend to be bitten most often on the shoulders and arms, in distinctive lines.

These bites and skin reactions are generally not considered a health risk. Some people find the bite painful, while others can react to the saliva the bed bugs inject while feeding, resulting in a localised allergic reaction. Some people do not react or notice bites at all.

Few individual can develop anaphylactic reactions (potentially life threatening allergic reactions) to bed bug bites. If you have experienced a reaction to the bite, avoid scratching as this may lead to it becoming infected. See your doctor if necessary.

How are bed bugs spread?

Bed bugs can walk short distances to adjoining rooms or can be carried over greater distances in and on people’s luggage and belongings. This is how bed bugs are moved from infested premises to new premises around Australia and internationally.

Look for evidence of bed bugs when travelling by examining bedding and mattresses for signs of the insects.

What can I do to reduce the risk of a bed bug infestation?

Evidence shows that bed bugs are more commonly found in low cost short stay accommodation. However, they can be found anywhere that people sleep including charter boats, trains and hotels.

When travelling

  • Consider spraying the exterior of your luggage with an aerosol insecticide, as this may kill or repel bed bugs that crawl onto your luggage during transit.
  • Wherever possible, thoroughly inspect your luggage on arrival at your destination and again before departing.
  • Check bedding for signs of bed bug infestations or live bed bugs concealed under mattress stitching.
  • Look out for signs of bed bugs wherever you stay.

At home

Ask guests who may be lodging or staying at your home whether they have experienced unexplained insect bites. If they have, help them to inspect their belongings carefully for evidence of bed bugs and treat promptly if anything is found.

Check second-hand furniture carefully, particularly bedroom furniture, for evidence of bed bugs. Have it treated by a licensed pest management technician if bed bugs are found. This should be done before moving it into your premises. Think carefully about picking up furniture from verge collections as it could be infested.

The regular use of a vacuum cleaner with a disposable bag may help to remove adults, nymphs and cast skins. Eggs are more difficult to remove.

How do I get rid of bed bugs?

If you think that you have a bed bug infestation, contact a licensed pest management technician for treatment. Delay or failure to treat promptly and effectively may cause the infestation to spread, making control more difficult and expensive.

The licensed pest management technician will need to thoroughly inspect the premises. After the initial treatment, follow-up inspections may be required, usually with repeated treatments to completely eradicate the pests.

Bed bug control is most effective when chemical and non-chemical treatments are used together. You can discuss bed bug treatment options with your licensed pest management technician.

Non-chemical treatments

These are safe and effective in reducing bed bug numbers prior to insecticide treatment.

Regular inspections of mattresses and other areas are essential. If bed linen is infested, wash the items in hot water and then tumble dry on high for at least 40 minutes. A steam iron may also be used on the seams of mattresses or other items where there is stitching or folds in material. The use of high temperature low vapour steam on other areas such as mattresses should also be considered.

If infested items are taken out of a room, the bed bugs can fall off and spread the infestation. It is always advisable to treat such items before disposal and these should be wrapped in plastic before removal from the room. For linen, carry the items to the washing machine in garbage bags then dispose of the bags immediately.

Thorough vacuuming of carpet edges, skirting boards and all cracks and crevices using a vacuum cleaner with a disposable dust bag is important for removing bed bugs and their eggs. Seal the dust bag in plastic and dispose in your council refuse bin.

Disposal of infested objects such as bed heads to landfill is an option, where other methods have not been effective. It is important to wrap the object first so as not to spread the infestation during transport.

Chemical treatments

A range of low toxicity products such as synthetic pyrethroids and carbamates are available for use indoors to control bed bugs. Regular pesticides do not kill bed bug eggs, so residual products are more effective than non-residual products, as these will kill immature bed bugs once the eggs have hatched. Always read the product label before purchase to make sure that the product you choose can be used for bed bugs. Note that some products are only available to licensed pest management technicians.

These products can be used to treat cracks and crevices where bed bugs are found and should not be applied to bedding where human contact may occur. They are designed to be applied to surfaces where bed bugs may be harbouring, and should not be used as space sprays. After the initial treatment, a follow-up inspection should be carried out to determine if further bed bugs or eggs are present. In most cases, repeat treatments are required to control bed bugs.

Whenever using a pesticide product, make sure you read and follow label instructions.

More information

For further information on licensed pest management technicians and the treatment of bed bugs:

Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional advice. Information about a service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace professional advice. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified professional for answers to their questions.

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