Why is a bed-bug epidemic sweeping across the UK?

Cost-of-living crisis and post-Covid travel blamed for 65% year-on-year increase

Bed bug feeding on human skin
The tiny creatures hide in furniture joints and mattress folds and typically only come out to feed when people are asleep
(Image credit: Edwin Remsburg/VW Pics via Getty Images)

The cost-of-living crisis, post-Covid travel and climate change are all driving a bed-bug epidemic that is sweeping the UK.

Notoriously hard to get rid of, these tiny creatures hide in the joints of furniture and mattress folds and typically only come out to feed when people are asleep, leaving swollen welts and rashes.

Largely eradicated in the West in the mid-20th century, bed bugs have been slowly on the rise in UK cities since the 1990s. The most common type of bed bug in the UK, Cimex lectularius, “can travel over 100 feet in a night”, reported The Independent, “but usually live within eight feet of where people sleep”.

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What is causing the spike?

Pest control company Rentokil has reported a 65% year-on-year increase in bed-bug infestations, with experts pointing to several main factors.

The first is a rise in furniture recycling – which has increased significantly as a consequence of the cost-of-living crisis – through resale websites such as eBay and Facebook Marketplace. Bed bugs hide in cracks of bed frames and other furniture and can survive for months without food.

The second is a resurgence in travel and hotel stays since the pandemic. According to The Telegraph “travellers can carry the critters in their clothing and luggage and when a mating pair sets up home in a bed, they can breed thousands of eggs within weeks”.

“Obviously we probably had a bit of a lull during Covid but with things starting to get back to pre-pandemic levels in terms of travel, it’s very likely that there will be bed bugs on the move much more again and travelling in people’s suitcases,” said Professor James Logan, from the London School of Tropical Medicine.

Climate change is also having an impact, with the reproductive cycle of the bugs shown to shorten from 18 to 21 days to eight or nine days in higher temperatures, meaning the bugs can lay more eggs faster.

What damage can they cause?

Beyond the severe discomfort they can cause to an unsuspecting victim, “infestations can have “serious economic consequences for accommodation providers” reported The Telegraph.

Hotels can spend hundreds of pounds calling out exterminators and “upwards of £20,000” trying to get rid of them completely, said Professor Logan.

Earlier this year a couple staying at the Cumbria Grand Hotel in the Lake District were offered £1,500 in compensation when they complained of bed-bug bites. Chris Rickard, from the Strathmore Hotel Group which runs the hotel, said “despite the best intentions and efforts of hotel owners and operators” incidents of bed bugs were “increasing at an exponential rate”.

“High hotel-occupancy levels coupled with climate change, is the ‘perfect storm’ with regard to these highly evasive pests”, he added.

The cost of bed bugs is not limited to hotels. A recent report by France’s National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety (ANSES) found that 11% of all French households had faced an outbreak of bed bugs between 2017 and 2022, costing a total of €1.4bn (£1.2bn) to exterminate.

How can you get rid of them?

While incredibly irritating, bed bugs do not pose a serious health risk, although they can “sometimes cause a severe allergic reaction” said The Independent. Bites will usually subside on their own within a week, but putting something cool on the affected areas, such as exposed skin on the face, neck, or arms, can help with the itching and swelling.

Unfortunately, they are notoriously hard to exterminate once they gain a foothold. They can live for about a year without a food source “making them very difficult to starve to death”, said The Express.

A study from 2016 found bed bugs are also increasingly resistant to neonicotinoids, the most widely used insecticide in the world.

Co-founder of the pest control company Merlin Environmental, Adam Juson, said the best way to get rid of bed bugs is with heat.

“If you think you have bed bugs, you can wash your bedding and clothing on a hot wash and then tumble dry on a very hot setting,” he told The Mirror.

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