Bed Bug Bites
“Sleep tight… Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Bed bug bites have been plaguing humans since the beginning of time. It is believed that humans first encountered this pest while dwelling in caves. The bugs were likely originally feeding on the bats in the cave, but readily preyed upon the humans that entered. And bed bugs have coexisted with humans since that time. As humans organized more formal communities, bed bugs thrived within the crevices of these cities. Archeological digs in Egypt have revealed the presence of bed bugs from as far back as 3,500 years ago. The ancient Greeks used bed bugs as a supposed cure for snake bites, and also recommended hanging the feet of a stag or hare at the foot of the bed to prevent bed bug bites. The ancient Romans compounded bed bugs with wine, beans, or eggs attempting to cure a myriad of diseases. As late as 1896, the American Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia, fifth edition, included a tincture for the treatment of malaria which included using bed bugs.
Throughout the centuries, bed bugs have gone by many descriptive names. Scientists refer to bed bugs as Cimex lectularius Linnaeus; Cimex being the Latin word for bug and lectularius the Latin word for couch or bed. The Greeks called bed bugs coris meaning to bite. The Spanish word for bug is chinche, and Spanish speaking people often refer to them as chinche de cama, directly translated to bug of the bed. Aside from multiple curses being thrown their way throughout the years, bed bugs have been referred to as a bed louse, wall louse, wallpaper flounder, night rider, red coat, mahogany flat, and crimson rambler. Whatever name you choose, the bites of these pests can cause many sleepless nights.
Bed bugs were abundant in both the homes of the rich and the poor. The rich often blamed their servants for bed bug introductions, but it is now generally accepted that a bed bug infestation is not due to unsanitary or unclean conditions. Bed bugs travel with people and are most often transported in luggage and bags. It is believed that bed bugs were brought to the New World by European settlers. Studies of the second well at the settlement of Jamestown revealed what are believed the be the earliest bed bugs in North America.
To rid their homes and beds of these pests, historically people have used some interesting techniques. As always, industrious salesmen created tonics and tinctures that were sold to apply to bedding and crevices housing bedbugs. These early tonics were likely completely ineffective. People often traveled with bed bug traps to place under the bed in inns and taverns. People boiled their linens and beds, and the wealthy could regularly throw away their bedding. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the local druggist often sold mercury chloride, better known as “Bedbug Poison.” This was mixed with egg whites and applied to cracks and crevices with a feather. It was effective against bedbugs but also highly toxic to people and resulted in human deaths. “Fire and brimstone” was also a popular bed bug “remedy” in the 1940s and 1950s. This procedure involved blocking off the chimney with blankets and stuffing rags into the keyhole. The room was then “fumigating” by burning sulfur. This foul-smelling bed bug treatment was far from perfect, but sulfur fumes are fatal to all stages of bed bugs including the eggs. Although extremely dangerous to the pest control technician or homeowner doing the application, cyanide gas was considered the most effective bed bug treatment until DDT came along.
True bed bug control was not achieved until the early 1940’s when the insecticidal properties of DDT became known. Dichloro-diphenyl trichloroethane (DDT), changed the public’s interactions with bed bugs. One application of DDT was usually enough to keep bed bugs at bay for years. DDT’s strong residual worked to continually eliminate bed bugs as they were reintroduced. DDT bug bombs were used by homeowners and the military, and all but eradicated bed bugs… for a while. Bed bugs easily build resistance to insecticides and DDT was no different. In addition, in 1972 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a DDT cancellation order due to adverse environmental impacts and potential human health risks.
Bed bugs were not a major pest between the 1950s to the late 1990s. However, bed bugs are now back with a vengeance. Bed bugs are well-traveled hitchhikers. Anywhere people sit or lay for a prolonged period, bed bugs may be present. Staying in an expensive hotel or flying first class does not exempt you from the threat of bed bugs. In fact, the first sightings of bed bugs in the U.S. in the 1990s were primarily in high-end hotels. This was because people traveling internationally typically have higher budgets and stay at more expensive hotels. The commonplace nature of international travel hastened the spread of bed bugs to the extent that they can not be avoided. Hotels, planes, trains, buses, movie theaters, dressing rooms, libraries, nursing homes, daycares, schools, jails, and ambulances are a few of the many places that bed bugs regularly infest. Bed bug bites cause itchiness and anxiety as history has shown us, bed bugs do not go away on their own.
Bed bug treatment protocols are now designed to consider bed bug resistance issues, thorough inspections, and prevention techniques. This all-inclusive approach helps to prevent bed bug bites and infestations. Evaluating the historical relationship between humans and bed bugs, it is clear we are still battling this persistent pest. Just as in times of old, we use chemical treatments, heat, bed bug traps, and modification of the environment (decluttering). For an enlightening, entertaining, and in-depth read on the history of bed bug management, read The History of Bed Bug Management — With Lessons from the Past, by Dr. Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky’s Entomology Department.
History of bed bug management aside, let’s get to the real reason you are reading this article. What does a bed bug bite look like?
What Do Bed Bug Bites Look Like?
At the risk of sounding obtuse, the answer to this question is, that it depends. Bed bug bites are present in many ways. The reactions to bed bug bites range from no reaction at all, a minor bump and inflammation, to a complex allergic reaction. Many co-sleeping couples exhibit different reactions, which may exacerbate the anxiety surrounding bed bugs. For example, if one partner has no reaction to a bed bug bite, while the other person in the bed experiences an allergic reaction, it may cause people to look elsewhere for the source of the discomforting bite marks or rash. When dealing with bed bugs, time is of the essence. Delaying treatment only allows bed bugs to reproduce and expand their reach within the cracks and crevices of your home.
Bed bug bite identification can be tricky because the symptoms vary by the individual and yet are so similar to a host of other causes. The surest way to know your reaction was caused by a bed bug bite is to find a bed bug. Adult bed bugs are visible to the naked eye and tend to hide in predictable locations in and around the bed. They are about the size and shape of an apple seed. A thorough bed bug inspection can be both time and labor-intensive, but a professional bed bug pest control technician knows how and where to look for bed bugs. A bed bug treatment should not be performed without confirming the presence of live bed bugs. If you suspect bed bugs may be causing the mysterious bites on your body, contact a professional bed bug pest control company.
Bed Bug Bite Patterns
Bed bug bites are sometimes, but not always, accumulated in a cluster at the bite location. Some people insist that bed bug bites will occur in a zig-zag pattern, or an arc (semi-circle) pattern and others contend that bed bug bites are most often in a straight line. This kind of insistence on a clear-cut rule greatly misunderstands the complexities of nature. The truth is, a bed bug bite may simply be one bite mark, and if there are multiple bites, they can be arranged in any combination of the above patterns. Honestly, depending upon the positions of the bite marks, most points can be connected with a zig-zag pattern or semi-circular shape. When trying to identify a bite of unknown origin, do not get hung up on the pattern of bites in a specific area.
Multiple bite marks within a small area do not necessarily indicate an army of bed bugs marching out to the mess hall. Bed bug bites sometimes have multiple raised red welts near each other because the bed bug may have been disturbed during the feeding and lost its suction. Most people do not feel bed bugs biting, but the normal act of tossing and turning in your sleep may disrupt the feeding of the bed bug. If the bed bug has not had its fill, it will move over just a bit, and begin feeding again. Of course, multiple bites in a particular area may be a result of a severe infestation, multiple bed bugs feeding on multiple nights.
In reality, there is often more than one bite mark on a given location, but because so many factors are at play, there is no hard and fast rule as to what bed bug bites look like. In every situation, the level of bed bug infestation, paired with your body’s individual reaction dictates what a bed bug bite looks like. However, below we have provided a general overview of the range of reactions to bed bug bites. It should be noted, that if you suspect bed bugs are causing the bites on your skin, this suspicion should be confirmed. A thorough inspection, by a professional who is knowledgeable about bed bugs and where they hide, should be able to find evidence of an active infestation… if it exists. Treating your room for bed bugs without finding a live specimen causes unnecessary pesticide exposure to you and your family. In some cases, pesticide exposure can cause a reaction that creates itchy red marks resembling bites. Always apply pesticides as per the label directions.
Bed Bug Bite Timing
To make identifying bed bug bites even more difficult, the timing of a reaction to the bite is different for everyone. Because bed bugs inject a mild anesthetic when they pierce their hosts’ skin, the initial bite is rarely felt. As discussed above, some people will have no reaction to the bite at all, while others will have a minor reaction the very next morning. Still, others will not have any physical indication until days after the bed bug bite. Especially for people who travel frequently, this makes narrowing down the source of the bed bug bite exceedingly difficult. Bed bug bite marks typically show within 3-5 days of being bitten, but some people’s reactions may be delayed by up to two weeks.
The Appearance of Bed Bug Bites with Minor Reaction
Knowing the importance of this issue, studies of bed bug bites have been performed where researchers have “sacrificed” their bodies to science. By intentionally placing bed bugs on the participants’ arms and watching to ensure the bed bug bites, researchers can evaluate reactions to bed bug bites in a quantitative fashion. Studies have shown that 30%-60% of people experience no itchiness or reddish inflammation from a bed bug bite. However, a barely visible pin-size mark will be present on the skin, where the bed bug pierced the skin to feed. On the surface, this lack of reaction sounds like great news! However, the lack of a reaction to bed bug bites may allow a bed bug introduction to explode into a full-blown bed bug infestation.
For those of us that do experience a reaction to bed bug bites, much of the time they will exhibit as a small 2-5 mm itchy red spot. Most often, itchy red spots at bite sites resemble bite marks seen with other arthropod bites. Most bed bug bites do not have a white center typically seen in a pimple. The itch factor is impossible to quantify as people’s itch tolerance and reactions vary. Most people find the itch to be noticeable, but not unbearable like a chicken pox pustule or poison ivy rash. With a “minor” reaction, bed bug bites usually clear within 3-5 days with no medical treatment. However, if a bed bug infestation is severe, and many bed bugs are feasting upon you each night, the cumulative effect of each bed bug bite is multiplied. Because of the sheer quantity, even a relatively minor reaction to bedbugs can be overwhelming and thoroughly disruptive to your life.
Allergic Reaction to Bed Bug Bites
If you are allergic to bed bug bites, your reaction may be more severe than described above. When a bed bug pierces your skin to secure a blood meal, it injects its saliva into your body. Some people are severely allergic to a protein found in the bed bug’s saliva. This saliva contains a pain-killing agent that anesthetizes the area where the bed bug is feeding. Because of this, even the lightest of sleepers usually don’t feel the penetration of a bed bug.
People who are severely allergic to this protein in the bed bug’s saliva will exhibit much more severe symptoms. The red welts will be larger and rate higher on the itchy scale. Some people describe the allergic reaction to bed bug bites as blister-like welts. In some cases, a bite mark turns into a hard bump or nodule. When these itchy blisters, welts, or nodules are repeatedly scratched, they may burst open and become infected. Secondary infection from a bed bug bite is a serious medical issue. Although uncommon, it is possible to sustain a permanent scar as a result of a bed bug bite.
Some people who have been bitten by bed bugs report itchy wheals apparent on their skin. Wheals are sections of skin that are irritated, itchy, and red, commonly called hives or welts. In a person with an allergic reaction to a bed bug bite, this rash may surround the actual bite mark. Some evidence suggests that an allergy may be exacerbated by more frequent exposure to bed bugs. This means that the longer an infestation drags on, the worse your reaction to bed bug bites may become.
Some people experience bullous reactions, which look similar to a blood blister. They are larger than a typical reaction, dark red in color, and may persist for days or weeks. These bed bug bites are intensely itchy and painful and may leave bruising or a scar. Bullous reactions may take weeks to heal completely but remain non-threatening so long as they do not become infected.
Understanding the interaction between the immune system, which controls allergic reactions, and bed bug bites is an ongoing project. Some researchers believe that the immune system’s response controls the timing of a reaction. In 1966 renowned entomologist Robert Usinger published his treatise on bed bugs, The Monograph of Cimicidae. Published at a time when bed bugs were all but eradicated, this book became known as the “Bible” for bed bugs. Usinger fed a colony of bed bugs on himself for years. He observed that in the beginning, his reactions to the bed bug bites were delayed, but as time went on, his reactions to the bed bug bites became immediate. Remembering of course, that everybody is different, this observation may indicate that the more often a person is exposed to the bite of a bed bug, the more immediate their reaction will be. More research is needed in this area to better understand the correlation between bed bug bites and our auto-immune reaction to them.
Severe or Systemic Reaction to Bed Bug Bites
Although rare, some people may experience severe or systemic reactions to bed bug bites. Many people are familiar with the idea that people can be deadly allergic to the stings of bees and wasps. There are very few possible cases of systemic reactions to bed bug bites, such as generalized hives, asthma attacks, and even anaphylactic reactions. It should be noted that where the most severe reactions are reported, all other possible causes have not been ruled out. For example, it is possible that a reaction may have another cause and coincidentally bed bugs were found in the room. When dealing with possible severe reactions to bed bug bites, medical doctors should be consulted for medical advice and treatment.
One case study, discussed by Dr. Jerome Goddard of Mississippi State University, involved a man who woke up in a hotel room with severe hives and itchiness. He ultimately had to be hospitalized and an electrocardiogram revealed he had a heart attack. Bed bugs were located in the hotel room. Approximately 8 months later, this man performed an experiment in a clinic where he was bitten by a bed bug. Sure enough, he developed hives and generalized itching severe enough to require administration of epinephrine.
Another case study focused on a man who had bed bugs in his home and complained of general weakness, fever, joint stiffness, and edema. He also reported conjunctivitis and a sore throat. A physical exam showed small insect bite marks and more severe bullous lesions. He was tested for many common diseases to which he was negative. Once the bed bugs were eliminated from his home, his symptoms resolved. The researchers found no other reason for his symptoms, but suspect the bed bug bites may be to blame. They readily acknowledge that an unidentified viral infection may have been the true cause of his illness and the presence of the bed bugs was coincidental.
Severe systemic reactions to bed bug bites are possible, but exceedingly rare. As further research is conducted into the auto-immune response to the proteins from bed bugs, our understanding of this issue will continue to expand.
How Do Bed Bugs Bite
During the day, bed bugs hide in small tight crevices; during the night they come out to feed. Bed bugs prefer to hide near their food source (near your bed), but they are adept walkers. In a severe infestation, when all the “good” hiding places are taken, such as in the tufts and folds of the mattress, in the crevices of the nightstand, and in the bed frame, bed bugs may hide further away from their host. But how do bed bugs bite?
If food is readily available, that’s a nice way of saying, if you are in your bed every night, bed bugs feed about once per week. The rest of their time is spent digesting that meal, reproducing, and growing and shedding their exoskeletons. Depending on conditions though, bed bugs can survive for months without eating.
When bed bugs are ready to feed, they locate their target using a variety of senses. Bed bugs find us by sensing the heat from our bodies and the carbon dioxide we exhale. Bed bugs typically don’t burrow under blankets or sheets to gain access to human blood, rather they usually attack exposed skin. Bed bugs have piercing-sucking mouthparts like a mosquito. Before a bed bug pierces your skin with its beak, it applies an anesthetic to numb you. This is the reason most people never feel a bed bug bite. Once it pierces your skin, the bed bug begins sucking your blood. Bed bugs feed until they are fully engorged, which takes between 3 – 10 minutes. If you move in your sleep, or the bed bug loses its grip, it will move over a bit and pierce you again to continue feeding. Therefore, bed bug bites are often found in clusters.
As the bed bug gets its fill of blood, its color changes from a rusty brown color to a more blood red color. Unfed bed bugs are flat and broad-oval shaped; once they eat their shape becomes swollen and more elongated. Once the bed bugs are engorged, meaning they have had their fill, they detach and crawl back into their crevice to digest the meal. Often, on their way out of your bed, they defecate, leaving brownish red spots or smears on your sheets or blankets.
Where Do Bed Bugs Bite
Bed bugs prefer not to burrow under clothing, sheets, or blankets. Therefore, humans are most often bitten on exposed skin that is in contact with the mattress, couch, or recliner… wherever the bed bugs are hiding. Humans are most likely to be bit by bed bugs on the face, arms, neck, and hands. Of course, if bed bugs are in movie theater seats and you’re wearing shorts, you’ll probably find bed bug bites on your thighs. Bed bugs are opportunistic feeders; if they can stealthily access your skin, they will take advantage and bite.
Bed Bug Bite Pictures
Below are some pictures of bed bug bites. Notice the varied reactions, from a mild red bump to full regions of the body covered in welts.
Bed Bug Bite on Eyelid
Dermatologists are often consulted in cases of mysterious bites or rashes. Many dermatologists consider bite marks on the eyelids or around the eyes to be indicative of bed bugs. While it is horrifying to think of bed bugs in a baby’s crib, many frantic parents call the pediatrician when they see bumps, pustules, or hives. Sadly enough, bed bugs can infest cribs, car seats, baby swings, and anywhere else babies sit or sleep.
Especially in pediatric patients, who can not verbalize symptoms or answer questions, physical observations are paramount. Although we are told to place a baby on its back to sleep, babies and toddlers often roll over to sleep on their stomachs during the night. During this time, their face will be in direct contact with the mattress and exposed to roving bed bugs. The commonplace nature of bed bug bites on the face and eyelid has prompted dermatologists to refer to it as the “eyelid sign.” If you or anyone in your family has red itchy pustules on the face, eyes, or eyelids consider bed bugs as a possible culprit. A reputable pest control company can thoroughly inspect your home and locate and eliminate bed bugs.
Bed Bug Bite Symptoms
Symptoms of bed bug bites are different for every person. A person’s physical reaction to bed bug bites can even change over time. It is impossible to definitively predict the symptoms of a bed bug bite as every individual reacts differently. It is common for many people who are in the midst of a bed bug infestation, to have absolutely no symptoms, yet others will experience debilitating physical and mental symptoms due to bed bug bites.
For many people, small itchy pustules form where the bed bug pierced your skin and fed. Most bed bug bites do not have a white center typical of a pimple. The severity of the infestation determines the quantity and frequency of bed bug bites. Technically, this minor skin reaction is an allergic reaction to proteins in the bed bug saliva, but the symptoms for a person with a more severe allergy will be more severe. Some people break out in hives in the area of the bed bug bite, and for others, the most concerning symptom of a bed bug bite are large watery bullous blisters. These blisters are red in color and intensely itchy. These bullous blisters may exude pus and become infected if they are scratched. Some people experience bruising around the area and permanent scarring is possible.
The most severe symptom of bed bug bites is allergic reactions that go systemic. Although extremely rare, some physicians speculate that anaphylactic reactions and asthma attacks could be serious symptoms of bed bug bites.
Mental Health Symptoms of Bed Bug Bites
Even if you are a person who shows no physical symptoms of a bed bug bite, almost everyone experiences mental health symptoms of the biting presence of bed bugs. The very idea that we are being preyed upon in our sleep and our blood being used to nourish and sustain bed bugs is seriously gross. People struggling with bed bugs often suffer from insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Many sleepless nights have been caused by bed bugs. In severe instances, bed bugs may cause nightmares, flashbacks, bizarre or hypervigilant behaviors to kill or prevent bed bugs, avoidance behaviors, and a general inability to function normally. Some people are so disrupted and traumatized by bed bugs that they are diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Still today, people take extreme measures to get rid of bed bugs and alleviate their anxiety. Although not recommended by Pest Management Professionals, people often get rid of mattresses, bedside tables, and other bedroom or living room furniture. Some people begin to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to alleviate the stress associated with the havoc wreaked by bed bug bites.
Still, others self-medicate by attempting “home remedy” style bed bug treatments. These bed bug home remedies are not only ineffective, but they may also cause additional skin irritations and rashes. This cycle is both physically and mentally dangerous because the more you apply your “home remedy” the more inflamed and irritated your skin can become. This causes you to apply more and more until you are at your wit’s end. Bed bugs can safely be eliminated from your home, but by dousing your body, clothing, and bedding with vinegar, tea tree oil, cayenne pepper, or rubbing alcohol you will never completely eliminate the bed bug infestation. You may cause even more severe skin irritations from these home remedies. Anxiety and sleep deprivation are very real symptoms of bed bug bites. If you are experiencing these symptoms, contact an experienced Pest Management Professional for a bed bug inspection today.
Hives or Bed Bug Bites?
Bed bugs are often brought to your home without your knowledge, and their presence is a jarring shock. Sometimes, the first symptom of a bed bug infestation is the emergence of hives on the skin. Papular urticaria, usually called hives, is characterized by large numbers of red itchy bumps on the skin. Hives are often accompanied by generalized redness or swelling of the skin. Hives are associated with an allergic reaction, and many people assume the hives are a reaction to food eaten, a new laundry detergent, or another environmental allergen. However, in some highly allergic individuals, hives are associated with bed bug bites. Because hives generate multiple red itchy spots, sometimes it is difficult to differentiate the bed bug bite. Therefore, we can safely say, hives may be a symptom of a bed bug bite, but they can be caused by a multitude of other allergens. While you await an appointment with your primary care physician, dermatologist, or allergist, consider doing a preliminary search for bed bugs. Allergists, doctors who specialize in identifying and treating allergies, can perform a skin prick test, and identify the severity of your allergy to bed bugs.
Bed Bugs on Babies or Toddlers and the Elderly
If you are responsible for caring for a baby, children, or the elderly, you should be especially cognizant of bed bug bite symptoms. Those that can not advocate for themselves are at particular risk of bed bugs. In addition to our homes, bed bugs can infest nursing homes, hospitals, cribs, and sleep mats in daycare centers. Anywhere that people sit or lie for extended periods of time is subject to a bed bug infestation.
Bed bug bites on babies and toddlers are usually concentrated on the face, neck, and hands. Sleep swaddling and footed pajamas often protect babies from being bitten by bed bugs on their arms and legs, but when they transition to pajamas that cover less skin, they will be more susceptible to bites on their extremities. There are many cracks and crevices where bed bugs can hide on a crib. If you learn that your child’s crib is infested with bed bugs, be sure to carefully check the car seat, baby swing, and highchair. Bed bugs are hitch-hikers and often travel in and on bags. The diaper bag goes with your child wherever he or she goes. If you leave your diaper bag on a hook or in a cubby at church, at daycare, or at the gym kid’s club, you may be either acquiring or spreading bed bugs.
As many of us have experienced, our skin changes as we age. Due to skin changes as we age, bed bug bites may be more difficult to notice and diagnose. Alterations in the immune response may change the way in which bed bug bites present themselves. Nursing homes and a long hospital stay for your loved one may mean that you are not intimately familiar with their care. Bed bug bites in the elderly may become infected causing a serious health risk. Individuals who are unable to leave their bed, become a constant source of food for bed bugs. With the prevalence of bed bugs, introductions into medical facilities are inevitable. To protect your loved ones, nursing homes and long-term care facilities should have protocols and procedures for bed bug incidents. In addition to bedding and furniture being susceptible to bed bug infestation, wheelchairs and other medical equipment can provide adequate hiding places for bed bugs.
Do Bed Bug Bites Spread Disease?
Another insect, the mosquito, has earned the distinction of being the deadliest animal in the world. Not because of the immediate ramifications of its bite, but because of the diseases spread by its blood-sucking bite. The mosquito spreads many diseases including Malaria, Dengue Fever, West Nile Virus, and the Zika virus. Its blood-sucking cousin the bed bug carries and transmits NONE of these diseases. With the recent emergence of bed bugs, many researchers have carefully evaluated this issue of much public health importance. There is no evidence that bed bugs transmit and spread disease.
In samples obtained from wild bed bugs and bed bugs collected from homes, we have learned that bedbugs can be carriers of over 40 microorganisms in their stomach, feces, teguments, and/or saliva. However, despite much research into the issue, it has not been proven that they transmit these diseases to humans. This seeming lack of agreement or consistency is an enigma that warrants further scientific exploration. Some scientists hypothesize that this discordance is due to the reproductive biology of bed bugs. Bed bugs are the only blood-sucking insect where the females are impregnated by traumatic insemination. The theory is, that perhaps because of the repeated nature of this incredibly violent activity (the male bed bug pierces the body cavity of the female and implants sperm), the immune response of the bed bug is enhanced and is therefore unable to pass on these diseases. Clearly, more research is needed to better understand this dichotomy. Whatever the reason, many studies have clearly shown that bed bug bites do not transmit diseases.
One of the most studied diseases related to bed bugs is Chagas disease, which is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi. Chagas disease is common in South and Central America and the CDC estimates that as many as 300,000 people in the United States may be infected. Parasites remain hidden in the heart muscle for years before the patient exhibits cardiac or gastrointestinal complications. Progressively, Chagas disease leads to the destruction of the heart muscle. Chagas disease is spread by the triatomine, commonly called the kissing bug because it bites humans and sucks blood. Like the bed bug, the kissing bug defecates very soon after a meal. It is this fecal matter that spreads the parasite that causes Chagas disease. When a person, with open wounds, possibly even open infected bite marks, rolls over onto contaminated kissing bug fecal matter, the parasite can enter the human body. Many fear that this route of transmission is possible with bed bugs, but it has yet to be proven. If diagnosed, Chagas disease can be treated with anti-parasitic medications.
Bites That Look Like Bed Bugs… But Aren’t
The bites and stings of many insects look similar; in addition, every person’s reaction will be unique. With many of the common biting and stinging insects, we are immediately aware that we are under attack. For example, if you step into a fire ant mound and have to swat thousands of fire ants off your legs and feet, you will likely not be concerned about those bites being caused by bed bugs. Spiders rarely bite, they prefer to be left alone, but medical professionals often diagnose a mysterious bite as a spider bite. If you are bit by a spider, you will immediately feel it, and you will likely be outside imposing in the spider’s environment. No-see-ums also called sand fleas or biting midges, are tiny gnats that ferociously attack with a painful bite near waterways. Some of the most beautiful waterfront campsites and fishing spots are over-run by these vicious biters, and they leave bite marks quite similar to the bite of a bed bug. However, you will immediately know it if no-see-ums are out feeding in force. It is more difficult to distinguish insect bites that occur unbeknownst to us. It is more difficult with mosquitoes. Sometimes it is obvious the mosquitoes are attacking, such as when you are surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes. Other times it is more difficult. A single mosquito in your bedroom can bite you several times while you sleep. Like bedbugs, mosquitoes have a small amount of anesthesia in their saliva so the bites are painless. Also, like bedbugs, mosquito bites are on exposed skin such as the face, neck, and extremities.
Do not jump to the assumption that an unexpected bite mark or rash is from a bed bug. Prior to the commencement of any bed bug treatment, the presence of bed bugs should be confirmed. Most pest control companies offer free bed bug inspections. If after a thorough inspection, no bed bugs are located, it may be time to think about alternative explanations. Bring your pest control operator and your dermatologist into the discussion, and together you will find the cause of your rash. If you don’t catch it in the act, vigilance and careful evaluation of the circumstantial evidence are necessary to properly identify a bug bite.
Bed Bug Bites vs. Lice Bites
Head lice are a common occurrence in childhood, passing from child to child in schools, daycares, gyms, and anywhere else kids come into close contact with each other. Head lice live on the hair near the scalp and bite to extract blood for nourishment. Similar to bed bugs, some people do not react to head lice bites while others react more severely. A common head lice bite may look similar to the bite of a bed bug. Head lice bites are small red itchy spots most often found on the scalp, behind the ears, or on the back of the neck.
Of course, lice may not be limited to the head, body lice or public lice may be the cause of the bites you are experiencing. Public lice, which are most commonly spread through sexual contact, are the smallest of the lice. They are generally confined to the genital region, the armpit area, and sometimes in facial hair such as the beard or eyebrows. Pubic lice bites often itch intensely at night, causing people to associate them with their beds, and therefore with bed bugs. Public lice, or crab louse, bites are small red bumps, often covered in hair making them difficult to see. If your bites are confined to these personal regions as opposed to distributed throughout the areas that are exposed at night, consider public or crab lice as the source of your bites.
Body lice are rare, except in unique circumstances. Body lice do not live on their host, rather they live in folds and seams of clothing and travel to the body when they require a blood meal. Body lice are most often found in people who lack the opportunity for proper hygiene and clean clothes, such as those without stable housing. If clothes are changed and cleaned regularly, and the body is washed often, body lice can not get established.
Both lice and bed bug bites can produce red itchy bumps on the skin. In differentiating between bed bugs and lice bites, the location of the bites could be a good clue. A thorough inspection and correct insect identification are necessary before any treatment can begin. Bed bugs are visible to the naked eye along with their nymphs (immature), their feces, shed exoskeletons, and eggs. Lice are also visible to the naked eye. Careful inspection of the head or pubic region will reveal live lice and their egg casings, or nits if lice are present. A bed bug treatment will not eliminate a lice infestation and vice versa. In fact, treating yourself for lice, when bed bugs are the issue, will allow the infestation to grow worse, exacerbating the problem. Take the time to thoroughly inspect for both lice and bed bugs before starting any pest control treatment.
Bed Bug Bites vs. Flea Bites
Fleas like to frequent the same areas as bed bugs but would prefer to torment your pet. Fleas most often bite near our feet and ankles; fleas jump but they cannot fly. If you are bit by a flea during the day, you will most likely notice and quickly shoo the pest off. Flea bites are typically quick, sharp, and a painful bite that is noticeable.
Fleas often lay eggs in your pet’s bedding or resting area. If your pet, who has fleas, sleeps in your favorite recliner while you are away, you will likely be bit while you relax after work. Fleas do not apply the same anesthetic prior to their bite, so you may immediately feel a flea bite where you most likely will not feel the bite of a bed bug.
Similarly, flea bites may be confused for bed bug bites if your pet sleeps in your bed with you. Depending on where your pet sleeps in relation to you, fleas can jump onto you during the night and bite you. If your cat sleeps cuddled up against your abdomen, you may notice bites on your stomach area. While typically not a common location for flea bites, under these circumstances, it would be not unusual. If you are a particularly deep sleeper, you may not wake up when you get bit by the flea in the night. This can lead to a suspicion of bed bugs.
As mentioned, everyone’s physical reaction to bites will be different, but generally speaking, flea bites are brighter red in color than bed bug bites. Flea bites are smaller than bed bug bites and may be concentrated around the ankles, or really anywhere your pet cuddles against your body. Flea bites and bed bug bites are usually found in clusters. If your dog or cat has fleas and you are experiencing mysterious bites, eliminate the fleas from your home. Your veterinarian is the best resource for flea and tick management. Insecticide resistance is a common issue in fleas, but effective products are available. Fleas torment pets who are not well protected and they may be the cause of your agony as well.
Bed Bug Bites vs. Mites or Scabies
Scabies is a skin rash caused by mites. These microscopic mites can live on your skin for months and burrow underneath your skin to lay eggs. This results in red itchy bumps similar to bed bug bites. The scabies rash will usually consist of bumps that are more scaly or lumpy. With scabies, you may see raised track-like marks tunneling under the skin where the female burrows to lay her eggs. Scabies is diagnosed via looking at a skin scraping under a microscope. Although highly transmissible, if properly diagnosed, these mites are easily treatable by a physician.
Mites and other insects often live on rodents, birds, and other nuisance wildlife that may invade your home. As pest control professionals, sometimes we are called in to help solve mysteries. After a rodent, bird, bat, or other wildlife infestation has been eliminated, the mites may remain in the attic and other areas of the home. As they desperately seek to survive, they will seek you out in order to obtain a blood meal. If you have or previously had a rodent or other animal infestation, the mysterious bites may be coming from a rat or bird’s nests.
Bed Bugs vs. Bat Bugs
At the very beginning of this lengthy article, I mentioned that humans likely first were acquainted with “bed bugs” when we shared caves with bats. Bed Bugs (Cimex lectularius) and bat bugs (Cimex pilosellus) are both in the family Cimicidae, a family of insects that feeds on the blood of mammals. Bed bugs and bat bugs are very closely related and look very similar. Bed bugs have adapted to live entirely on humans, where bat bugs develop and thrive within colonies of roosting bats. If you previously had bats roosting in your attic, and are now experiencing mysterious bites, bat bugs may be to blame. When a colony of bats is eliminated from a home, bat bugs may emerge 1 – 4 weeks later seeking a blood meal.
Bat bug bites and bed bug bites produce very similar reactions or symptoms in humans. Bat bugs have not become a major problem like bed bugs because bat bugs can not reproduce after feeding on humans alone. Therefore, without a bat population to feed on, bat bugs eventually die off. Confirming a bat bug bite generally hinges on the knowledge of the previous bat infestation. Bat bugs are notoriously difficult to locate, they remain in the attic until they must emerge to find a meal. Rather than finding large accumulations of bat bugs on a bedside table or mattress, a single bat bug may be found in tight dark crevices like behind a picture frame or crawling up the chimney. They tend to be found higher up on the walls than bed bugs. Usually, an attic inspection reveals the hiding spot for bat bugs.
Bed Bugs or Carpet Beetle Larvae
Carpet beetle larvae do not bite humans, but they can irritate the skin leaving us with the impression that a mysterious bug is overwhelming us while we rest. Carpet beetle larvae are caterpillar shaped with barbed hairs along their body. These sharp hairs can irritate the skin causing redness and a rash. These spear-tipped tufts of hair cause allergic reactions in some individuals. Beetle species are numerous, and each species has a preference for different foods. You may find a carpet beetle larva in your bed sheets or on a rug of natural fibers. If these barbed larvae are sharing your space, they could be the cause of your redness and itching.
Bed Bug Bites vs. Mosquito Bites
Usually, when mosquitoes attack you know it! However, mosquitoes have become such a common nuisance that the episode may be less than memorable, especially if the mosquitoes attack while you are sleeping. Mosquitoes will also attack exposed skin such as your face, neck, and extremities while you sleep. Mosquito bites usually begin as a puffy white bump that emerges shortly after the bite. A few days later, a mosquito bite may change to become larger and more brownish-red in color. Mosquito bites can appear anywhere on the body, while bed bugs tend to only bite skin that is exposed during sleeping. Mosquito bites usually begin to itch immediately after the bite. Bed bug bites do not begin as a whitish-colored welt and generally remain a consistent size until they resolve.
When attempting to identify an unknown biter, careful consideration of all anecdotal evidence is necessary. Capturing a specimen is ideal, but sometimes you must piece it together like a detective to determine the cause of your rash. An experienced Entomologist or Pest Management Professional can help guide you on this journey. If your skin irritation is insect-related, Nextgen Pest Solutions has the knowledge and experience to get to the bottom of the rash and eliminate the pest causing the problem.