Introduction 

Bedbugs (Cimex lectularius) are small blood-sucking insects that can live in cracks and crevices in and around your bed.

Attracted by your body heat and carbon dioxide, they crawl out at night to bite your exposed skin and feed on your blood, just as mosquitoes do.

Not everyone develops a skin reaction to bedbug bites, but some people will develop itchy red bumps one to nine days later, usually on the face, neck, hand or arm. These are often mistaken for mosquito bites, but while mosquito bites tend to be random in pattern, bedbug bites more often occur in straight lines.

The media has recently reported a huge increase in the number of bedbug infestations around the world, particularly in America. It is likely that tourists and an increasing resistance to insecticides are the main reasons for this.

Bedbugs are not dangerous. They do not transmit any human diseases and most people do not develop any serious skin reaction. However, their presence can be upsetting and stressful, and you should take action straight away.

If you think you have a bedbug infestation, read the advice below and contact your local council or a professional pest control firm that is a member of the British Pest Control Association or National Pest Technicians Association.

About bedbugs

Adult bedbugs look a bit like lentils and are visible to the naked eye. They are oval-shaped, flat and reddish-brown, and up to 5mm long.

Females lay 200-500 eggs over a two-month period. These white specks stick to surfaces and are very difficult to spot. They hatch to form tiny straw-coloured insects that take about six to eight weeks to grow into adults. As they grow, they shed their skin. This looks like mottled brown shells on your mattress.

Bedbugs need to feed on blood to be able to mature, but they are very resilient. Adults can survive for up to a year without feeding.

They are not attracted to dirt, so a bedbug infestation is not a sign of an unclean home.

How to spot them

  • look for any unexplained skin rash or itchy bump (although not everyone develops this)
  • look out for black spots on your mattress – this could be their dried faeces
  • look for mottled shells that bedbugs may have shed
  • check your sheets for blood spots where you may have rolled over and squashed a bug after it had fed
  • inspect all the crevices and joints of your mattress and furniture using a torch, and see if you can spot any bugs

Where to find them

Because their bodies are flat, bedbugs can squeeze into the smallest crevice or crack, such as a mattress seam or the joints of a bed frame. This can make them very difficult to spot.

They tend to prefer fabric or wood over plastic and metal, and often hide near to where you sleep, for example under the mattress or along the headboard.

However, they are willing to travel several feet if necessary to reach you, so they can also be found away from the bed in other furniture, along the edges of carpets and even behind mirrors or inside smoke alarms. In fact, they can be found in almost any place in the bedroom where they will not be disturbed.

How bedbugs spread

Once introduced into your home, bedbugs can spread easily from room to room. They do not fly or jump, but can crawl quickly.

They can soon spread within a building by getting through holes in walls or pipes, and can potentially invade blocks of flats, hotels or hospitals. The bugs can also be transported in luggage, clothing, furniture and bedding from one building to the next.

This makes is easy for tourists and commuters to unknowingly spread bedbugs.

Getting rid of the bugs

It can be extremely difficult to get rid of a bedbug infestation from your home, so it is wise to contact your local council or a pest control firm. Make sure any pest control company you contact is a member of the British Pest Control Association or National Pest Technicians Association (check the credentials of the company first).

Some councils' pest control services treat homes for free, whether you are a council tenant or not. Other councils' services are free for council tenants only. Each treatment can cost between about £20 and £170, depending on your council's pest control prices, how bad the infestation is, and how many rooms are affected. Pest controllers can usually get rid of bedbugs with two treatments.

A technician will carry out a thorough inspection, which may take a few hours. They will then use specially designed equipment such as a steamer or rapid freeze system to get rid of the bugs.

If you insist on tackling the bugs yourself, the following advice may help:

  • If clothes or bedlinen have become infested, wash them at 60º or put them in a dryer on a hot setting for 30 minutes to kill the bugs.
  • Dismantle your bed and furniture and closely inspect every seam, crevice and joint using a bright torch. Use a vacuum cleaner with a hose to suck up any bugs you can see, but bear in mind you may not be able to find them all. Dispose of the contents of the vacuum cleaner in a sealed bag.
  • To kill any remaining bugs, you can use insecticide spray specially designed for bedbugs. Always read the label and never use this directly on clothing, linen or your mattress. Also, bear in mind that these sprays may be becoming less effective as the bugs build resistance to them. Ordinary insect repellent for mosquitoes and ticks does not seem to be effective.
  • Be prepared to throw away a mattress if it appears to be heavily infested.

Preventing an infestation

It can be difficult to avoid bedbugs as they can be transported so easily.

The best thing you can do is inspect your mattress regularly for telltale signs and take immediate action if necessary. Avoid buying second-hand mattresses and be wary of old beds you might be using in rented accommodation. 

Treating the bites

Many people do not react to bedbug bites or only have the odd spot, so treatment may not be needed.

If you do develop bumps that are very itchy, your GP may prescribe some mild steroid cream to apply to your skin, or your pharmacist should be able to recommend antihistamine tablets to relieve the itch. Your skin should clear up within a week. Read more about treatments for itching.

A few people will develop a more severe rash of fluid-filled blisters that can become infected if scratched, requiring antibiotics.

Page last reviewed: 04/12/2012

Next review due: 04/12/2014