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Bedbugs

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read
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Bedbugs are tiny insects that cause an intense itch and can be troublesome to get rid of as they live in clothing, bedding, mattresses, and any other soft furnishings at home. They feed on blood to survive, and when they bite, they inject a local anesthetic that numbs the area so you won't feel it. It's this that causes the irritation.

They're a real nuisance, but they don't carry specific diseases to pose a threat to your health.

Infestations range from light, with a couple of bites in a week, to heavy, with 40 or 50 bites in a night. More severe infestations are likely to need pest control to decontaminate your home.

How do I know it’s bedbugs?

You will see raised red insect bites, usually in the morning, as they are active at night. This is usually on the face, neck, and arms, as these are exposed during sleep. Three to four bites may appear in a line or a curve. You may even see the mites themselves, as they are visible to the naked eye, although tiny, and look red or brown, flat, and oval-shaped.

You may notice brown marks in bedding that is likely to be their feces or red spots of blood from their bites or from squashing a just-fed bedbug. You may notice a distinctive smell of sweet almonds from them.

Insect bites can look quite similar – it's less likely to be bedbugs if you get the insect bites while out and about in warm weather or in parks or wooded areas. Scabies is possible in the home – these mites cause intensely itchy bites, especially at night, but can leave distinctive tracking marks, like red tramlines, from bites as the mite burrows under the skin. These are treated with an over-the-counter cream.

How do I get rid of them?

To kill bedbugs, you need to wash your bedding and clothes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher or tumble dry for at least 30 minutes on a hot setting. Alternatively, you can leave clothes in a sealed bag in the freezer for at least four days, killing the mites. Regular vacuuming and cleaning will help.

If you have a heavy infestation, you will need to contact a pest control company to use professional-strength insecticides to decontaminate your home.

If you are staying in a hotel and think you have bedbugs, report this to the management, move rooms, and ensure you decontaminate your clothing, as they can travel home with you.

How can I ease my itch?

A cool, damp cloth on any bites can help, or a cool shower. You can buy a mild steroid cream (1% hydrocortisone cream) to calm the inflammation and itch. If this isn’t enough, or sleep is interrupted by scratching, you can try antihistamine cream or tablets to ease the itching further.

Try to avoid scratching: easier said than done. Keep your nails short and clean to avoid breaking the skin. If you do scratch, keep the skin clean, and consider using an antiseptic cream or spray on any areas of broken skin.

When should I see my doctor?

Occasionally insect bites – or breaks in the skin from scratching – allow bacteria to get in and cause an infection. The area will be sore and have a large red swollen area around the bite. You may feel unwell, not be eating, and have a fever. Speak to your doctor urgently or call 911, as this may require antibiotic cream or tablets.

Rarely bedbug bites can cause a severe allergic reaction, including anaphylaxis (problems with breathing). Seek urgent medical help if you are severely swollen, have mouth or tongue swelling, or have difficulty breathing.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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