Bedbugs, which are parasites known by the scientific names of Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus, have been on the rise in the United States in the past decade or so. (1)
Insect Bites Matter When You Have RA
As the name suggests, bedbugs bite at night when you’re asleep in bed, usually about an hour before dawn. (2) If you wake up with a bite, though, don’t immediately assume bedbugs are to blame. The bites look very similar to other insect bites. Here’s what to know to confidently identify bedbug bites and how to go about treating them.
Bedbug Bites Look Like Swollen Red Spots — and They Often Itch
Bedbugs prefer to feed on the blood of humans (but they can survive on the blood of mice, rats, or other animals, too). You probably won’t catch the bugs in the act of biting, however, because the bedbug injects an anesthetic and an anticoagulant to numb the area as it bites you. (1)
The bites can appear on any part of the body that’s exposed while you sleep — places like the back of your neck, shoulders, arms, and legs are common, says Steve Durham, president of EnviroCon Termite & Pest in Tomball, Texas.
For most people, bedbug bites result in itchy bumps where the bite occurred, within a day of being bitten. (4) The bites usually look like mosquito bites and will appear as a somewhat swollen red spot that might itch. (1)
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But the bites will look different from person to person, and some people won’t develop any reaction whatsoever. “The same bedbug could bite two different people and one could have no reaction at all and the other can have an extreme reaction with a swollen arm or itchy rash,” says Eric Braun, a board-certified entomologist and technical services manager for the national pest control company Rentokil. Some people end up developing a rash that looks like eczema. (5)
It’s also possible that you won’t see a reaction the first time a bedbug bites since it sometimes can take the body a while to react. (6) Some people will have an immediate reaction, while for others it could take two weeks to emerge. Your body will likely become more sensitive to bedbug bites over time, and if you get bitten repeatedly, it could be only a matter of seconds before your body shows a response.
You may notice a single bite, while other times several bites will appear in a line. (1) “In most cases, they occur in clusters or zigzags of flat, itchy bites,” Durham says. “One bedbug will usually take more than one bite, so the severity of your infestation can have a big impact on the severity of your physical reaction to the bites.”
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Bedbug bites differ from other bites in a few ways:
- They can appear anywhere on the skin that’s exposed while you’re sleeping. Flea or chigger bites, on the other hand, usually only appear around your ankles, Durham says.
- They sometimes bite in a zigzag pattern. (6)
- Bedbug bites don’t normally have a red dot in the center, while flea bites usually do.
Bedbug bites tend to stick around longer than mosquito bites, though they look very similar.
Most of the Time Bedbug Bites Themselves Don’t Require Medical Attention
Bedbug bites don’t normally require treatment by a doctor, though there are a few precautions you should take at home. (8) Start by cleaning the area with soap and water to lower your risk of infection and to relieve itchiness. If the bites are itchy, pick up a corticosteroid cream at your local drugstore and apply it to the area. The bites generally will heal within a couple of weeks. (9)
Some people develop allergic reactions to bedbug bites, which can include a fever, difficulty breathing, hives, or a swollen tongue. Others may develop an infection where the bite starts oozing pus. If you experience either of these reactions or you develop blisters where the bites occurred, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a dermatologist.
To treat an allergic reaction, the doctor may prescribe an antihistamine, corticosteroid, or epinephrine injection. If the area is infected, he or she might prescribe an antibiotic or recommend an over-the-counter antiseptic. Finally, if it’s severe itchiness that you’re dealing with, applying corticosteroid or taking an antihistamine in pill or liquid form may be able to help.
In most cases, the only way to say for sure whether it was a bedbug that bit you is to search for evidence of bedbugs living in your home. "Once you start to notice the itchy bites, the second giveaway is the presence of small blood spots on your sheets or mattress, usually resembling patches of rust,” Durham says. Those spots are left behind after a bedbug has been smashed.
You’ll likely only see them in their hiding spots or crawling across the floor since, unlike other insects, bedbugs cannot fly or jump. Durham says to check along the edges of your mattress. You may see the exoskeletons that bedbugs have shed as they matured, or you may notice a musty smell, both of which indicate there could be bedbugs in the area. It can also be helpful to check your bed with a flashlight during the middle of the night (since these crawlers tend to be more active at night.)
Bedbugs Are Not Known to Carry Disease
Bedbug bites can itch and knowing you have bedbugs in your home can be distressing, but being bitten won’t negatively impact your health. “Thus far, bedbugs have not been shown to transmit any diseases to humans,” says Jerry Lazarus, president of Braman Termite & Pest Elimination.
That’s a key difference between bedbugs and mosquitoes, which Braun says are sometimes called the “deadliest animal on the planet.” Bedbugs do bite and feed on blood like mosquitoes do, he says. “However, they do not transmit any disease. The risk of getting ill from the bite isn’t there.”
The bigger concern with bedbugs is the effect they can have on one’s mental health, since having bedbugs can be both stressful and embarrassing.