What are bed bugs?
Cimex lectularius, aka bed bugs, are small insects that often live on our bedding (hence the name) or in our furniture.
They rely solely on blood to survive, and feed on us while we sleep (gross, we know!), and will often target other warm-blooded animals to feed from, too. Bed bug bites can be itchy and annoying, but they don’t often cause any other health problems.
What do bed bugs look like?
Can you see bed bugs? Well, it depends on how old they are and how good they are at hiding. Adult bed bugs are usually visible to the human eye, especially when they are in box springs and mattress seams. However, baby bed bugs (nymphs) can be harder to see due to their smaller size and paler colouring.
Here are some bed bug stats1:
- Size of bed bugs: Adults are usually around 6.5mm and nymphs grow from around 1mm to 5mm.
- Colour: Well it depends if they’ve had a meal or not! Adult bed bugs are mahogany before they are fed and turn to a red-brown colour when they have eaten. Nymphs have no colour.
- Shape: Before they’ve fed, bed bugs have a flat, oval shape, which becomes elongated and swollen after they have fed.
- Body: The body of a bed bug is split up into three segments which features short yellow hairs.
- Antennae: Bed bugs have antennae with four parts
- Legs: Bed bugs have 6 legs.
- Smell: Bed bugs have a stale-sweet, musty smell released by their glands
- Wings: Bed bugs have wings, but they can’t use them
Where can you find bed bugs?
Bed bugs have been bothering humans for thousands of years and you can find them in virtually every place where people gather, including homes, hotels, offices, shops, schools and even on the bus!
They are the great hitchhikers of the bug world, latching onto items like bed linen, clothes and suitcases, to name a few. Being able to survive long distances helps them to infest their destination, which is why bed bugs can spread so easily.
How do you know if you have bed bugs? How to check for bed bugs
How to tell if you have bed bugs signs include:
- You can see some bedbugs chilling out in your bed!
- Look for all the stuff bed bugs leave behind, like their moulted skins, their eggs and empty eggshells – all of which appear pale white
- Spots of blood on your bedding – from squashing a bed bug or from it biting someone
- Small brown dots of bed bug poo on furniture or bedding
- Bed bug bites – we’ll expand on this in more detail below
How to find bed bugs – where to look:
- Your bed linen, especially in the seams and around buttons / zips
- Inside box springs
- Picture frames
Bed bugs are often spread by the following items:
- Second hand or used furniture
- Luggage items
- New textiles or furniture exposed to bed bugs while being shipped
- Loungers or chairs where people fall asleep
- Storage / moving boxes
- Bedding or bed clothes
- Items that are shipped to your house
They usually come out at night to feed, and that 5-10-minute feeding process is usually the only time you will see them exposed like this, so if you’re going to search, wait until its darker.
It’s also worth knowing that adult bed bugs can go multiple months without a blood meal and can survive in near-frozen conditions all the way up to 50°C, so they’re quite robust.
How to identify bed bug bites
Bed bugs can bite you anywhere on your body where there is skin. As they operate mainly at night, they usually target areas we expose when we sleep like the:
You probably won’t feel the bite when it happens, and it most cases you will only develop a small dot where you have been bitten with some minor irritation and inflammation around it.
Rarely, some people can have severe reactions to bedbug bites, with symptoms that need medical attention including 2 :
- Difficult breathing
- Swollen tongue
- Flu-like feelings
- Irregular heartbeat
Please contact your GP if this is the case.
What do bed bug bites look like, and how do you know if you have been bitten by bedbugs?
Bed bug bites usually cause a small raised area of the skin with a dark red spot in the middle. You’ll probably find them in a cluster shape or a line, and they often get worse if you scratch them.
Where do bed bugs usually bite?
You will usually find them on the upper half of your body around the face, neck, arms and hands.
Bed bug bites vs flea bites
Flea bites leave small red marks on your skin too, but these bites are more likely to cause intense itchiness. You’ll sometimes find flea bites in groups of threes. Fleas tend to go for the lower half of your body and small skin folds and crevices, like:
- Lower legs
- The bend of your elbow
- The bend behind you knees
- Other folds of skin
Just like bed bugs, you will experience more intense symptoms if you are allergic to them. Fleas can also burrow into your skin and cause tungiasis – a type of infestation which always occurs around the toes and feet. 3 This is quite rare though, so don’t worry too much!
You can find pictures of bed bug bites online if you’re still not quite sure what is potentially biting you and family. Could insert pic here?
Are bed bug bites a risk to your health?
These sneaky critters are only really a serious risk to your health if you are allergic or have an intense reaction to bed bug bites.
Allergic reactions to a bite may cause intense itching and painful swelling in the affected area. In more serious cases it could also cause your body to go into anaphylaxis. Please seek emergency medical help if you start to feel the following symptoms after a bed bug bite:
- Trouble breathing
Can bed bugs cause disease?
A study on bed bugs and their potential to transmit disease to humans was conducted by the American Society for Microbiology in 2012. They found that although 40 pathogens had been detected in bed bugs, there is no definitive evidence that they transmit any disease-causing organisms on to humans by biting them. 4
How long do bed bug bites itch?
Bed bug bites tend to stick around for a week or so, and if you are not using any creams or ointments to help the itchiness subside, the itchiness could last for the whole duration.
How do you get rid of bed bug bites and how long does it take for bed bug bites to fade?
Most bed bug bite wounds heal by themselves in a week or two. If swelling, itchiness and inflammation persists then medical assistance is recommended.
How to deal with bed bug bites / treating bed bug bites
Bed bug bite treatment is fairly simple when it comes to uncomplicated bites.
Here’s how to treat bed bug bites:
- Always start by cleaning any wounds with soap or disinfectant and water
If your bites don’t heal and your symptoms persist then you should visit your GP, who can help you find out what treatment for bed bug bites is best for you.
Where do bed bugs come from and how do you get bed bugs?
As we have already discussed above, bed bugs feed on human blood and come out at night to feed, which is why it is quite common to find them in our beds.
They love to travel, so people travelling, and the sale of second-hand furniture helps them to spread around.
What causes bed bugs?
They’re small, travel well and want to survive, so the main cause of bedbugs is people and items like furniture entering different buildings and houses. Other potential bed bug causes include:
- Having a lot of cracks, crevices and seams, etc for them to hide in
- Dirty bedding that different people sleep in
- Washing infested clothes and bedding at low heat may allow bed begs to survive
- Luggage left on floors, beds and furniture while travelling
- Wearing little or no clothes in bed will give bedbugs more opportunity to feed off you
How do you get rid of bed bugs?
Now you know all about these small, sneaky blood suckers, here’s some tips on how to get rid of bed bugs from your home so you can sleep in peace!
- Make sure to fill or seal crevices, cracks and seams around your house with products like glue or calking – as bed bugs love to hide away in these areas during the day, waiting to come out at night to feed.
- Make sure to clean all bedding and bed clothing on a regular basis.
- Try vacuuming upholstered items like mattresses and pillows thoroughly on a regular basis
- When it comes to heavier bedding items like pillows, mattresses, duvet covers and blankets, use high heat settings on your washing machines – if you have a ‘dry steam’ option on your machine, go for that one.
- If you can see eggs and bugs in your luggage, bedding or upholstered items, use a hand steamer to kill them.
- Keep your luggage on racks when travelling, if possible, as leaving them on the floor, bed or other furniture can increase the risk of a bed bug infestation.
- Always make sure to check for tell-tale bed bug signs when you get to a new hotel room or other bed bug hot spots.
- If you do spot a bed bug, please be aware that there are likely a lot more where it came from. Make sure to check all around the infected room and the areas surrounding it to see if there are any more lurking about.
- When in a hotel room, sleeping somewhere unfamiliar or somewhere you know may have bed bugs, try to cover as much skin as possible while you are sleeping to lessen the chances of you getting bit or the bed bugs infesting your clothing.
Last updated: 1st December 2020
Author: Bhupesh Panchal, Regulatory Affairs
Bhupesh started his career as a clinical toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products. After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.
In his spare time, Bhupesh likes to cycle and has been learning to speak Korean for several years.