Bed bugs aren’t dainty little eaters—they suck your blood until they are engorged. When they’re full, their flat bodies bulge to hold up to three times their body weight. All that gluttony can leave marks on your skin, as well. Here’s how to tell if that bite on your skin is from a bed bug.
What do bed bug bites look like?
“Bed bugs typically bite several times in a row, so people may notice several itchy bumps grouped closely together. This has been called ‘breakfast, lunch, and dinner,'” says dermatologist A. Yasmine Kirkorian, MD, assistant professor of dermatology and pediatrics, Children’s National Health System. This pattern results because bed bugs probe our skin to find the sweet spots: an area with capillaries close to the surface that help the blood flow freely. The bites often swell up and look like red welts. They may be in a zig-zag pattern too, which can occur because we move involuntarily during our sleep and interrupt their feeding so they move to a nearby spot. Get help spotting bed bugs by seeing how they look at each stage of their lives.
Changlu Wang/Courtesy Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station
What are the symptoms of a bed bug bite?
About one in three people won’t see or feel any reaction; the rest will have an allergic reaction to bed bug bites. It’s usually not painful like a bee sting or a spider bite, but the itching could be pretty intense. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (ADA), a person may feel itching right away, or it may take up to 14 days. And if you don’t realize you have a bed bug infestation and are getting bit repeatedly, you could develop a reaction, such as bumps, welts, and/or an intense itch.
Do bed bug bites leave a mark?
Some people won’t have an immune response to the bite, which would be the only way you’d end up with a mark. “Usually people who react badly to the saliva of mosquitos will also be reactors for bed bug bites; conversely, those who do not react to mosquito bites may not react to bed bugs,” says Jody Green, PhD, an urban entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. If you don’t end up with a bump or rash from bed bug bites, you’ll have to keep an eye out for the other signs of a bed bug infestation.
Where on the body do bed bugs bite?
The areas where bed bug bites typically turn up are the first part of human real estate they come across; that means you could find marks on your face, neck, arms, shoulders, hands, wrists, legs, ankles, or feet. But they’ll also target your back or torso. “Bed bug bites on the face may cause intense swelling, including the eyelid,” says Dr. Kirkorian. If you end up with bites on your eyelids, in fact, research suggests that could be a strong sign that you have bed bugs.
Do bed bugs bite “down there”?
They can, but they’re unlikely to travel that far, says Green. “Bed bugs are more likely to encounter an appendage before they get to the genital area.” They aren’t great at navigating hair, either—and that means your head is safer, too. So does that mean people with a lot of body hair get a free pass? Afraid not. “Bed bugs will bite hairy people, but they will find a place on the body that has less hair—like a smoother spot on an ankle, neck, or wrist,” says Green.
Do bed bugs only bite in beds?
Given both their common name and scientific name—Cimex (bug) lectularius (bed)—one might assume the insects will only bite you in bed, but bed bugs don’t care whether you sleep in a bed, a recliner, or a sleeping bag. Once they’ve found their way to a sleeping spot, bed bugs will make it their home, hiding during the day and coming out at night to feed.
If you’re wondering how a bed bug finds its way to a recliner, Jody Green PhD, an urban entomologist at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln offers this example: A home healthcare worker unknowingly picks up a bed bug in her purse or bag when visiting a patient. On her next visit to a different patient, she sets her bag down on a chair and the bed bug crawls out of or off of the bag and scurries down into a crevice in the chair. As long as there is a human around, bed bugs will gravitate to where that human sleeps, and its host may not even be aware until he notices the first bite. Here’s how to identify common bug bites, including those from bed bugs.
How do bed bug bites compare to flea and mosquito bites?
If you have pets, you may blame your dog or cat’s fleas for the bed bug bites. Fleas jump from your pet to your carpet or floor, and that means their bites will be on your ankles and lower legs. The bites look like tiny crusted red bumps. Another key difference: “Flea bites can be felt—they are quite painful and they typically bite below the knees in homes with dogs or cats,” says Green. Mosquitos leave a small puffy white bump with a red dot in the middle that gets bigger if you scratch it. Here’s a handy guide to find which bug has been chewing on you.
Do bed bug bites hurt?
Not really—you’ll most likely sleep through getting bit by a bed bug. Brittany Campbell, PhD, an entomologist with the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), explains that before a bed bug sucks your blood, it releases a numbing agent (via the saliva).
Are bed bug bites serious?
Most bed bug bites won’t require medical care, but some people get hives or a secondary infection from scratching the bites. Others may suffer systemic reactions throughout the body. “It depends on the number of feeding bugs on the body, the length of time, the history the person has [of] suffering bites, and where the bites are located,” says Green. According to the ADA, there are some rare cases when bed bug bites require medical attention—for instance, if you experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, irregular or forceful heartbeat, large blisters, fever, swollen tongue, feeling ill, or anemia.
Do restless sleepers scare off bed bugs?
Bed bugs definitely prefer that you sleep still, but tossers and turners won’t get off bite-free. “When bed bugs need food, they will find times during the night or early morning (they like to dine between midnight and 5:00 a.m.) that they will be able to feed. They only need five to ten minutes to steal a blood meal from you,” says Green.
Do bed bugs bite pets?
Because they can’t handle hair, bed bugs tend to pass up cats and dogs for relatively hairless humans. “If they do happen to bite a pet, it will typically be on the belly where there is a natural bald spot. Science has even suggested that bed bugs and other blood-feeding insects may actually avoid hairy areas because it slows them down and gives a person (or animal) more time to swat at them,” says Campbell. Also, pets won’t cause bed bugs, but here are the things that do.
Do bed bug bites mean I have an infestation?
No one would blame you for immediately thinking bed bug bites mean a full-blown invasion, but that’s not always the case. “It is important to note that a bed bug infestation cannot be identified based on bites alone because skin reactions vary from person to person depending on their immune system. In addition, bites from other insects, such as mosquitoes, are often mistaken as bed bug bites.” Protect yourself: Check out the 7 things you should be doing to prevent bed bugs.
Bed Bug Bite Treatment
Changlu Wang/Courtesy Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station
Unfortunately, a bed bug bite has no telltale sign, according to a review published in the American Society for Microbiology. The reaction to bites varies tremendously from one person to the next. Some people will have no reaction or just minor itching and mosquito-like bumps in one area; others will get dramatic red raised welts all over. “It depends on the number of feeding bugs on the body, how long the person has been suffering bites, and also where the bites are located,” says Jody Green, PhD, an urban entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Five stages of post-bed bug bites
If you have evidence of bed bug bites on your skin, it’s due to your body’s allergic response, according to the U.S. Armed Forces’ 2019 Pest Management Board: Technical Guide #44. That response can take a few different forms: little to no reaction; an immediate reaction—often a red spot with minor discomfort; a delayed reaction in which red weals turn up within 14 days that trigger intense itching that can last two to five days; or, unfairly, a combination of immediate and delayed reactions. This makes it tough to know what’s gnawing on you without the help of an entomologist or dermatologist. Although this guide to bug bites may help.
Bed bug bite treatment
People who do react to bed bugs often have intense itching. “Once a patient has been bitten, it is difficult to eradicate the itching. Over-the-counter anti-itch creams that contain one percent pramoxine can help,” says Dr. Kirkorian. Try Aveeno with pramoxine and calamine. Oral antihistamines such as Zyrtec and Benadryl may be effective too, says Dr. Kirkorian. But if your itching persists, your dermatologist or doctor might prescribe topical steroids such as triamcinolone and fluocinonide.
Just thinking about bed bugs can wreck your sleep, as well. Talk to your doctor if you start suffering from insomnia. “A sedating antihistamine such as Benadryl could be safe to use,” says Dr. Kirkorian.
Home remedies for bed bug bites
Before you commit to natural bed bug treatment, remember to practice good hygiene and caution, advises Larry Bishop, MD, a dermatologist with Health First Medical Group: Be sure to wash the area with soap and water first to reduce the risk of infection; if the area appears irritated or develops a rash, stop using the treatment and see a doctor.
For remedies, Dr. Bishop suggests trying peppermint oil: “It works by two mechanisms—the peppermint oil is a vasoconstrictor (blood vessel constrictor), which lessens the pain and irritation from bed bug bites. Additionally, the peppermint works as a soothing agent by gently stimulating the nerves around the bite.” Try adding a few drops to a warm bath; if you want to apply it to the bites, dilute it first with an oil such as coconut, jojoba or olive.
Lemon balm is another favorite for bug bites. Crush or roll the leaves with your fingers to release the juice, apply it to the bites, and wrap with a bandage. “It works by having soothing properties and antibacterial properties,” Dr. Bishop says.
Finally, there’s household ammonia—research suggests that it can help with itchy bites. It may not smell great, says Dr. Bishop, but if you put a little on a cotton ball and dab it on the area right away, it can help. “It works by neutralizing the proteins that are in the saliva of the bed bugs.” The saliva is what produces the allergic reaction in some people, and the quicker you neutralize it, the better.
When to see the doctor
Your bed bug bites will generally clear up on their own, but if you itch them the scratching can lead to secondary infections. “The initial bite may be a portal for bacteria to enter the skin. If a patient develops a worsening red bump, pus drainage, a fever, or other signs of systemic illness, they should seek urgent medical attention,” advises Dr. Kirkorian. Then, find out how to get rid of bed bugs.