Fast facts

  • Bed bugs are small insects that feed on the blood of humans and other mammals.
  • Bed bugs are usually found where people live, especially in bedrooms.
  • Bed bug bites can be very itchy and annoying, but they are not usually serious and do not transmit diseases.

What are bed bugs?

Bed bugs are small, wingless insects that feed on the blood of humans and animals. Adult bed bugs have flat, narrow bodies that grow to about half a centimetre long. They can live in many places, but prefer to hide in dark spaces. They are called bed bugs because they are commonly found in mattresses, bedding and other soft furniture, or in cracks and crevices of bedroom furniture.

Bed bugs are active mainly at night and usually bite you while you sleep. Bed bug bites can be very itchy and annoying, but they are not usually serious. A bed bug has specialised mouthparts for piercing the skin and sucking the blood. When a bed bug pierces the skin to suck blood, they also inject some of their saliva, which can cause red, itchy bumps to form on the skin. 

Bed bugs are found all over the world, but two different species are found in Australia. These are the common bed bug (Cimex lectularis) and the tropical bed bug (Cimex hemipterus). There has been a recent increase in reports of bed bug infestations in many developed countries around the world. It is thought that this is due to an increase in international travel and an increase in the insects' resistance to chemicals usually used to control them. Bed bugs can sometimes enter a person's home in luggage or on clothes after travelling or visiting a place with a bed bug infestation. 

Bed bugs are a common problem in places that have a high turnover of people, such as hotels, cruise ships and dormitories.

A bed bug on the skin.A bed bug. 

Signs and symptoms

At first, bed bug bites are usually painless, but they can turn into itchy red bumps. Bites can occur on any part of the body that is exposed; the face, neck, arms and hands are most commonly affected.

The signs and symptoms of a bed bug bite can appear within minutes or days after the bite. The red bite marks generally disappear after a few days.

If you are bitten repeatedly over time, your reaction to the bites may become more severe. Some people can also have an allergic reaction to bites that can give rise to blisters or hives.

A man's back with multiple bed bug bites.Bed bug bites can cause blisters or hives. 

Allergic reaction

A problematic physiological response to an allergen that comes into contact with the body.

Methods for diagnosis

Diagnosing bed bug bites can be difficult, because the bites can look similar to the bites of other insects, such as mosquitos. If you suspect you have been bitten by a bed bug, checking your home for the insects and bringing in a sample of one may help your doctor tell whether the bites are from bed bugs. Bed bugs may be easier to detect at night when they are most active.

Types of treatment

Self care

Medical treatment is usually not needed for bed bug bites. Taking care not to scratch bites may prevent further damage to the skin and avoid infection. 

Medication

If needed, an over-the-counter antihistamine tablet or cream may help to relieve itching. Corticosteroid creams applied to the affected area may also help reduce any inflammation. These should not be used for more than three days continuously due to potential side effects. Also, if applying corticosterol creams to the face or to other sensitive areas, use an appropriately lower dose.

In the rare cases of a more serious allergic reaction or a skin infection, it may be necessary to see a doctor.

Eliminating bed bugs

Getting rid of bed bugs can be very difficult, because they are good at hiding and can survive for months without eating. Bed bugs are also developing resistance to the pesticides that are usually used to control them.

Some common steps to manage a bed bug infestation include:

  • Washing bedding, clothes and curtains in hot water and drying them in a clothes dryer;
  • Vacuuming mattresses and other surfaces where bed bugs may hide;
  • Steam-cleaning carpets;
  • Removing clutter around the bed, which may provide hiding places for bed bugs, and;
  • Using a professional pest controller to treat the home with pest-control chemicals.

Although keeping a clean house will help you manage a bed bug infestation, it can be quite difficult to get rid of bed bugs by yourself. Professional pest controllers are often the only permanent solution. Keeping your house clean can also help you detect a bed bug infestation in the first place, but it does not guarantee that bed bugs will not infest your house.

Allergic reaction

A problematic physiological response to an allergen that comes into contact with the body.

Antihistamine

A substance that counters the physiological effects of histamine, a type of compound released by the tissues as an inflammatory response to an allergic reaction.

Corticosteroid

A medication that resembles the cortisol hormone produced in the brain. It is used as an anti-inflammatory medication.

Potential complications

Very rarely, a person can develop a severe allergic reaction to bed bugs, known as anaphylaxis. An anaphylactic reaction is potentially life-threatening and needs urgent medical attention. 

Allergic reaction

A problematic physiological response to an allergen that comes into contact with the body.

Prognosis

Bed bug bites are not usually very serious. The bite marks usually get better within 1-2 weeks. However, the more often a person gets bitten, the more likely they are to have more serious reactions, so it is important to remove bed bugs from your living environment.

Prevention

Bed bugs typically enter a home in luggage after travelling, or on second-hand clothes and soft furnishings, such as sofas and mattresses. Checking these types of items carefully before bringing them into your home may help to prevent a bed bug infestation.

Bed bugs tend to burrow under clothing, so covering up as much skin as possible may help prevent bites during an infestation. 

Regular pest control can help prevent infestations in the first place/