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How To Tell If You’ve Got Bedbugs and What to Do If You Find Them

6 minute read

By Marta Heacock

Once considered relatively rare in Australia, bedbug populations have risen substantially in recent years and have become a serious concern among Australian residents. The insects typically make their home in places where people relax and rest, such as beds and furniture. Once established, bedbug infestations are difficult to get rid of and have the potential to make household residents extremely uncomfortable.

How Bedbugs Enter the Home

Unlike flies, ants, and other outdoor insects, bedbugs won’t come in through open windows, doors, or cracks in the walls, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many ways for them to enter your home. For instance, if you or a family member has recently returned from vacation, bedbugs may have attached themselves to luggage and/or clothing. They can also be present in used furniture, so be careful about buying from thrift and second-hand stores. It is never advisable to bring a used mattress into your home. To avoid picking up bedbugs, never put your clothing or luggage on the bed in hotels and other rental accommodations. Keep clothing and shoes in plastic bags.

What Do Bites Look Like?

Despite all precautions, bedbugs sometimes make their way into a home. The first sign of their presence may be bites on your skin. Bedbug bites are difficult to differentiate1 from other types of insect bites. However, they tend to appear on the parts of your skin that are exposed while you sleep, such as the face, feet, and arms, and sometimes occur in a zigzag pattern on the skin or otherwise clustered together in groups of three or more. The bites are typically red on light skin and pink-to-purple on darker skin. No matter what shade of skin they’re on, the bites turn darker with age.

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What Do Bedbugs Look Like?

Many people believe that bedbugs are so tiny that it’s hard to see them with the naked eye, but this is not the case — we just don’t tend to see them because they’re nocturnal insects. Adult bedbugs are about the size of a typical apple seed and are reddish-brown to brown with oval or elongated bodies. Juvenile bedbugs usually can’t be seen by the naked eye. If you see bedbugs during the day, this is a sign that you’ve got a serious infestation and need to take action immediately. Keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for a bedbug infestation to exist without the homeowner seeing a single insect.

What Are Other Signs of Bedbugs?

Other signs of bedbugs include blood stains on the sheets, dark spots of bedbug excrement on the sheets, pillowcases, mattress pads, or mattress, and a stale, musty odour. Because bedbugs shed their casings like many other types of insects, you may also find their empty casings on or around your bedclothes and mattress. Casings appear translucent with a faint yellow cast. You may also see their eggs, which are about the size of a pinhead. As a general rule, the stronger the odour, the more severe the infestation. The odour is often compared to mouldy berries.

What Should You Do if You Discover Bedbugs?

Immediate action is highly recommended once you determine that bedbugs are part of the picture. Otherwise, the infestation will continue to grow and quickly reach unmanageable levels. You first need to remove all the bedding from your room and launder it on the highest possible setting. Because you won’t be able to wash it all in the same load, place the bedding that’s waiting to be washed in secure plastic bags or containers to avoid spreading the infestation further. Be sure that all bedding is also dried on the highest setting.

Steam Clean the Mattress, Carpeting, and Furniture

Fortunately, high temperatures kill bedbugs. However, it typically takes a professional steam cleaning device to reach the high temperatures necessary to exterminate these pests, so don’t use a clothing steamer or carpet steamer designed for home use. Rent a professional-grade steaming device and go over every inch of the infested area thoroughly, including box springs, baseboards, and the tacking strips on the carpeting where bedbugs are likely to hide. Be sure to unplug any electrical appliances or devices while you’re steaming the area. Steaming should be repeated several times to help ensure that all the insects, their larvae, and their eggs have been properly exterminated. Pay special attention to the seams in upholstered couches and chairs.

Encase the Mattress and Box Springs in Plastic

No matter how well you steam your mattress and box springs, bedbugs may have been able to burrow into them far enough to escape the high temperatures. Encasing your mattress and box springs in a thick plastic covering will effectively starve the insects out over a period of time. Homeowners who’ve experienced bedbug infestations often decide to leave the protective plastic on for an indefinite period as a way to help circumvent further issues. Some people use the plastic encasing to prevent bedbugs from getting a foothold in their mattresses in the first place because they are so difficult to get rid of once they are established there.

Inspect and Clean All Clutter

Bedbugs naturally gravitate toward any available cracks, crevices, and other types of hiding places, so be sure to inspect and clean any and all clutter in the vicinity. Even if you see no signs of bedbugs, that doesn’t mean that recently hatched juvenile insects and/or eggs aren’t present. If the items are machine washable, wash and dry them on the hottest settings possible. If not, you may have to steam clean them. When bedbug infestations are serious, it might be wise to discard any items that can easily be replaced or just aren’t very important to you.

Freeze Them Out

If you live in an area where winter temperatures regularly get below freezing, you might consider throwing open your windows during a cold snap and staying in a hotel for several days. This is how these insects were dealt with before modern extermination techniques were available. However, although adult bedbugs typically die almost immediately when exposed to subfreezing temperatures, their eggs can survive for approximately 20 days in a dormant state. Freezing the entire room isn’t practical for most homeowners, but if you have small personal items such as throw pillows and blankets that you want to ensure are free of bedbugs, you can place them in the freezer for several days. For best results, set the freezer’s thermostat to 0 degrees Fahrenheit or less.

Install Bedbug Traps

Otherwise known as interceptor or pitfall traps, bedbug traps are designed to capture the insects before they make it to your bed. The premise is really simple for these types of traps — they fit around the bottoms of the legs of the bed and essentially act as moats that trap the insects when they try to crawl up them. Although these are good tools for bedbug prevention, they don’t help much with existing infestations. However, they’re a great idea if you travel often or are concerned about inadvertently bringing bedbugs into your home environment. It should be noted that the insects are live-trapped using this method, so you’ll have to find an effective way to dispose of them.

Post Infestation Maintenance

After you’ve gotten rid of a bedbug infestation, it’s important to be vigilant about practising preventive maintenance so that the problem doesn’t reoccur. Vacuum often, and continue washing your bedding in very hot water and drying it on your dryer’s hottest setting once per week. Always keep an eye out for repeat performances and take immediate steps to remedy the situation if they reappear. When caught in the initial stages, over-the-counter products may help to keep bedbug populations low. Still, they have limited value since bedbugs are resistant to most of the pesticides used in over-the-counter treatments. Additionally, over-the-counter pesticides can be harmful to the health of household occupants and domestic pets if not used properly.

Contact the Professionals

Even though bedbugs2 aren’t associated with the transmission of serious disease, they do come with some risks, including secondary infections of the areas of the skin that are bitten, allergic reactions to the bites themselves, and adverse mental health impacts on those who live in homes where bedbug infestations are allowed to continue unchecked.

Professional exterminators have tools and abilities when dealing with bedbugs that aren’t available to the great majority of homeowners, so don’t be afraid to call in the big guns. Professional pest control technicians can safely and effectively use extreme heat to ensure the eradication of bedbugs in all stages of their lives and pay follow-up visits to monitor the situation and nip any new infestations in the bud.

Marta Heacock


Marta spends her time between her home on the Oregon coast and a salmon cannery on the southern tip of Alaska's panhandle that she co-owns with her son. With a background in old-school newspapers, Marta brings a journalist's perspective to subjects such as Alaska and Pacific Northwest cuisine and culture, creating fire-resistant landscapes with native plants, and many more.