Bed bugs

If you’re waking up feeling itchy, bed bugs may be the problem.

Summary

Photo of a bed bug, a small brown insect with a leaf-shaped abdomen.
Bed bug, photo by Piotr Naskrecki / Public Health Image Library.

Bed bugs are small insects that feed on the blood of sleeping people and animals at night. During the day, they hide in dry, dark places.

The bites of bed bugs aren’t usually a health hazard, but they can be irritating. Scratching at them can cause infection.

If you’ve got bed bugs, you’ll need to find the infestation, then treat it with pesticide.

Many people pick up bed bugs in their luggage when they’re travelling. You can also bring them into your home in second-hand furniture, bedding or clothing.

Symptoms

Bed bug bites affect everyone differently.

  • Some people have no reaction and don’t even develop bite marks.
  • Most people get a series of itchy bites, similar to mosquito or sandfly bites. These may not show up until a few days after you’ve been bitten.
  • Some people are allergic to bed bugs’ saliva. This means they may get painful swelling or enlarged bite marks.
  • In very rare cases, people can have a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. This is a medical emergency and you should dial 111 immediately.

Treatment

The bites of bed bugs aren’t usually dangerous.

  • As with mosquito bites, the best thing to do is avoid scratching.
  • If you have a mild allergic reaction, use an antihistamine.
  • In the rare event of an anaphylactic reaction, dial 111 immediately.

Getting rid of bed bugs

You can kill bed bugs by washing and drying bedding and clothing at high temperatures. However, it’s important to figure out where the actual infestation is, as they often hide in furniture and walls.

If you think you may have bed bugs, have a look in and around your bed. Bed bugs hide in dry, dark places, such as mattresses, headboards and bed frames, furniture, drapes, and cracks in walls and floors.

  • Adult bed bugs are a reddish brown colour. They have a flat oval body around 4–7 mm long.
  • Young bed bugs look the same, but are smaller.
  • Bed bug eggs are around 1 mm long and are white.

You may find live bugs, cast-off skins, eggs or faecal stains (small dark brown or black marks).

Check other bedrooms in the house, too: bed bugs can’t fly, but they can crawl short distances.

Once you’ve found the infestation, you should use a pesticide to kill the bed bugs: ask at your hardware store or supermarket. Alternatively, you could hire a pest control expert. (If concerned about pesticides, ask about eco-friendly products.)

Prevention

  • Always check second-hand furniture before bringing it into your home. Avoid buying second-hand mattresses. Wash second-hand bedding and clothing in hot water immediately (provided the fabric can tolerate it).
  • When travelling – either within New Zealand or overseas – always check your hotel room for bed bugs before you settle in. Keep your bags off the floor, and check them for bed bugs before you leave. When you get home, wash your clothes in the hottest water the fabric can tolerate. Vacuum the inside and outside of your bags, paying special attention to creases. Empty the vacuum cleaner into a plastic bag and seal it.