Brace yourself, because the UK is about to experience a serious bed bugs epidemic, pest control experts have warned. In fact, Rentokil has reported a 65 per cent increase year-on-year in infestations across the country. As for the reason behind this dramatic rise in bed bug infestations, some suggested that it could be due to more people buying secondhand furniture, while others blamed it on the current cost of living crisis.
As someone who learned about bed bugs the hard way after moving to London as a teenager and having to deal with an infestation while losing sleep over it—I literally slept on my dining table instead of my bed for weeks—I can assure you that these experts’ warning should not be taken lightly. From tips on how to spot early signs of bed bugs to how to fight off a severe infestation, here’s everything you need to know about these blood-sucking insects.
Before I moved to London, although I had heard of bed bugs, I truly thought that in order to come into contact with the small insects, you had to live in truly awful conditions. Boy was I wrong. Bed bugs can hide in many places, including on bed frames, mattresses, clothing, furniture, behind pictures and under loose wallpaper. This means that apart from your own house, you could also come across them in places like a bus, a cruise ship, a hotel room, a train, and more…
Their bites can be incredibly itchy, and some people might notice some painful swelling, but they don’t usually cause other health problems. That being said, getting rid of them can be near-impossible, and living with bed bugs can often lead to sleep deprivation and paranoia—not something that makes the nine-to-five work shift much fun.
The insects feed on the blood of animals and humans, with adult bed bugs appearing reddish-brown, wingless, and about the size of an apple seed. They’re flat with oval-shaped bodies. After feeding, though, they swell and turn a more reddish colour. Awful, I know.
Meanwhile, young bed bugs, also called nymphs, are smaller and can appear translucent or yellowish in colour. If nymphs have not been recently fed, due to their colouring, they can be almost impossible to spot. Bed bug eggs are tiny and white.
Female bed bugs may lay hundreds of eggs, each about the size of a speck of dust, over a lifetime. Nymphs shed their skins five times before they’re mature. They require a meal of blood before each shedding. Under favourable conditions, the bugs can develop fully in as little as a month and produce three or more generations per year. They can live from about ten months to a year long.
They can pretty much make their way anywhere—the UK, the US, Canada, Asia, Africa, and South America.
Their flattened bodies make it possible for them to fit into very tiny spaces, about the thickness of a credit card. This means that they can get just about anywhere so long as there’s blood to feed on. Although bed bugs don’t make nests like other types of insects, they tend to live in groups in hiding places. They can’t fly, but they can move quickly over floors, walls, and ceilings.
The most common type of bed bug in the UK, the cimex lectularius, can survive on household pets and rodents. If you suspect you may have bed bugs, start by inspecting your mattress and bed carefully, especially in the crevices—that’s where they like to hide. You might find them near the seams, tags, and piping of your mattress or box springs, or in cracks in your bed frame or headboard.
Even if you don’t find any there, keep in mind that over time, the parasitic insects might move farther out into any crevice or location that offers a perfect hiding place. Check any objects near your bed, any fabric with folds like curtains, your sofa, your cupboards, peeling wallpaper, carpeting, boxes, etc.
Other signs of bed bugs include bites (duh) often on skin areas left exposed while sleeping, like the face, neck and arms; spots of blood on your bedding from the bites or from squashing a bed bug; and small brown or black spots on bedding or furniture (that’s bed bug poo, by the way).
Bed bugs usually get into your home from another place that’s infested with them. If you live in a flat, chances are they travelled from another unit in your building. They might hitch a ride on secondhand furniture too. Or you could carry them in your luggage after a trip or a purse that you set down in a place that has bed bugs.
They’re tiny and very good at hiding during the day, so it’s easy for them to get into your home without you knowing it. In case of a severe infestation, the bugs will go as far as to crawl into electronic devices kept close to the bed, such as televisions or plug sockets, since they prefer warm hiding places.
Dealing with these infestations can be very expensive for hotels and landlords because the treatments tend to work only after a couple of times. But what’s worse is that, like rats, bed bugs are becoming resistant to commonly used pesticides, making it more difficult to get rid of them.
Ensuring your home is clutter-free and regularly cleaned can help minimise the risk of an infestation. I’d also recommend thoroughly checking any secondhand furniture or luggage for bugs before bringing them inside your house. You can never be too careful.
If you think you have bed bugs, you should contact your local council or pest control service. I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but getting rid of bed bugs yourself is basically impossible. So do yourself a favour, and let an expert handle it.