Don’t let the bed bugs bite! How to stop an outbreak

Paris has recently made world headlines because of an infestation of bed bugs. But should we be concerned about these small insects in Australia?

The Paris outbreak of bed bugs has dominated the news and sparked concerns about infestations of these blood-sucking insects on home soil.

But should we be worried? We asked the experts.

Should we be worried about bed bugs in Australia?

According to University of Sydney entomologist Dr Thomas White, these small insects are already a common pest here.

“Reports suggest the outbreak is particularly bad in Paris, but I don’t think it’s any reason for concern or alarm greater than normal,” Dr White says.

“Outbreaks happen every year the world over – the only continent that they’re not on is Antarctica.”

Dr White says bed bug cases surge during warmer weather, particularly towards the end of a warm period, but it’s tricky to predict whether the Paris situation will lead to more cases in Australia.

“We’ll certainly see a pick-up in the numbers, but we see that every year – every year, around the world, it does seem to be getting a little bit worse,” he says.

“There may be some reason for some cautious concern, but I wouldn’t be losing too much sleep.”

So, where do bed bugs come from?

Dr White believes a slight uptick in cases may occur as people begin travelling more freely again post-Covid, and increasingly higher-density living can also contribute.

These small, flat, wingless parasitic insects hitchhike on luggage, shoes and clothing; and once acquired at high-turnover accommodation, can be transported back to the homes of guests via their luggage.

Mainly nocturnal, bed bugs feed on the blood of humans while they sleep.

Dr White says the hitchhiking insects are “extremely resilient”.

They feed every five to 10 days but may survive for several months without a feed from their victim, and their eggs can also survive many months.

How to tell if you have bed bugs at home

They lurk in bedding, mattresses, tiny cracks and crevices, furniture, skirting boards – even behind wallpaper.

Adult bed bugs, which can live up to six months, can easily be seen on white sheets and bedding because of their dark colour; they don’t jump or fly.

Other telltale signs of bed bug infestation include:

  • Itchy bites
  • An offensive, sweet smell
  • Dark brown spots on bedding
  • Finding bed bug exoskeletons

Are bed bugs dangerous?

Bed bugs are not known to spread disease but can cause annoying itching and loss of sleep.

Sometimes bites are in orderly rows and while some people have little or no reaction, anaphylactic shock can occur in individuals that are highly allergic – although this is rare.

“Beyond mild allergic-type reactions, the impacts are actually psychological as much as anything,” Dr White says.

“Thought of these things in your home and in your bed and on the lounge can really induce anxiety and stress in people.”

Can you get rid of bed bugs?

According to the Victorian Department of Health, bed bugs can be hard to remove because their eggs are difficult to see, they have a significant incubation period and can quickly infest new sites.

Modern bed bugs are also more resistant to common chemical treatments, making them “pretty tough critters to deal with”, according to Dr White.

“The over-the-counter stuff doesn’t really work and it’ll just harm all our lovely native insects that we actually want around the place anyway,” he says.

If you do find bed bugs at home, Dr White has these suggestions:

  • Conduct a thorough dust and vacuum, and mechanically brush the couch to target eggs and adults.
  • Extreme heat or cold treatments can be effective – give your clothes a hot wash at over 45℃, and steam clean your mattress and upholstered furniture.
  • If repeated cleaning doesn’t work, consider a pest controller.

Victorian Pest Control general manager Walter Moro says controlling infestations can be expensive.

“It’s quite an intensive job, with a high volume of chemicals,” Walter says.

“People have to be out of the house for at least 24 hours once it’s been sprayed.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a one-star or a five-star hotel at the end of the day, because they (bed bugs) don’t discriminate.”

Read more on pest control at home:

By Melissa Iaria.