What Are Bedbugs?

In This Article

Bedbugs have resurged worldwide and these blood-sucking insects (both the Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus) are a problem in many homes and hotels. Fortunately, bedbugs aren't known to spread contagious diseases. However, it is difficult to eradicate an infestation and you will want to take steps to prevent bringing bedbugs home. Learn how to identify and treat these pests.

Bedbugs 101
Verywell / Emily Roberts

Bedbug Symptoms

Bedbug bites often appear as small, itchy, raised red areas on exposed skin, usually a few days after the actual bite. However, some children and adults don't develop a reaction to the bites at all, even after repeated exposure.

The bites appear much as other insect bites and can be seen in these patterns:

  • A rash
  • A line of bites
  • A cluster of bites

You can develop a skin infection if you scratch the bites. Rarely, a more severe allergic reaction to the bites could produce larger welts, blisters, or anaphylaxis. Bedbugs may also trigger asthma attacks and getting too many repeated bites could lead to anemia. Anxiety, insomnia, and sleep disturbances are common due to the stress of discovering bedbugs.

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Bed bug bites on back
Bed bug bites on back. Joel Carillet / Getty Images ​Owner

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Bed Bug Bites
Bed Bug Bites.  Joel Carillet / Getty Images

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Bed bug bites
Bed Bug Bites. Joel Carillet / Getty Images  

Causes

Bedbugs are tiny flightless insects that feed only on blood. They prefer humans but can feed on pets and farm animals. They feed at night and hide from light, especially in seams and crevices around the bed.

There is no direct link between poor sanitation and bedbug infestations. A pristinely clean living space is as vulnerable as a messy one.

Usually, sleeping in a place where multiple people have slept increases your risk. You might especially suspect bedbugs if you or your child:

  • Traveled recently
  • Slept on a used mattress or sat on a used piece of furniture
  • Lives in an apartment building where bedbugs could have infested another apartment and have moved into yours
  • Lives in or recently spent time in a college dorm room
  • Are getting new unexplained bites each night
  • Actually see bedbugs hiding in the seams or crevices of a mattress or box spring, along the edge of carpeting, behind picture frames, and hiding inside recesses of furniture

Diagnosis

A diagnosis of bedbugs is made by the appearance of the bites and finding bedbugs in your home environment. The bites are often not distinguishable from other insect bites, so it's important to inspect your bedroom for them closely if you have a skin reaction.

You can identify a bedbug infestation by checking bedding, mattress seams, furniture, and wall fixtures for the bugs or their traces. Each mature bedbug is about the size of an apple seed, about 1/4 inch long.

Close-up of a bedbug biting a human
John Downer / Getty Images

You will often see their droppings instead, which are tiny brown or red specks. You may also see small blood stains on sheets or mattresses when a bedbug has been crushed after feeding.

Eggs about the same size as the adults might be seen in seams or cracks and you will also see their molted exoskeletons. There may also be a sweet musty odor from their pheromones.

Bed bug (Cimex lectularius) spent skins, eggs & carcasses
cerobit / Getty Images

Similar Conditions

Bedbug bites can mimic a variety of other insect bites and skin concerns. If you don't find any evidence of bedbugs in your home, you may have been bitten by a different insect or have another skin condition.

Other potential sources of the skin reaction can include:

  • Flea, mosquito, tick, chigger, or spider bites: All of these insect bites are hard to distinguish from bedbug bites. If you have pets or the bites are mostly concentrated on the lower body, such as the feet and ankles, you'll want to inspect for fleas. If you've recently spent time outdoors, especially near standing water or in wooded areas or high grass, mosquitos or ticks may be the source.
  • Scabies: This infection from a parasitic mite is intensely itchy and is spread through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person The mites burrow under the skin to lay eggs, often in skin folds, which cause bumpy rash patches when they hatch. The itching may worsen in the evening.
  • Allergic rashes or contact dermatitis: These skin reactions can happen after you've come in contact with an irritant, such as perfume or chemicals in soaps, detergents, body sprays, or lotions. It can also be caused by plants, such as poison ivy. The red rashes are concentrated in body areas that came in direct contact with the irritant or allergen. An allergic reaction may also be secondary to the bedbug bites. 
  • Eczema (atopic dermatitis): It's often produces red, dry, scaly patches that may get crusty. Eczema can happen anywhere on the body but often concentrates along the backs of the knees or creases of the elbows.
  • infectionStaph: This infection happens when the bacteria Staphyloccocus gets inside the body through a break in the skin, such as from a cut or wound. The area may be tender or painful.
  • Antibiotic reactions: Hives or patchy rashes may develop in the days after taking an antibiotic.
  • Chickenpox: This viral infection causes red blisters anywhere on the body and often happens along with flu-like symptoms.

Treatment

Treating bedbugs includes caring for the bites and eliminating the infestation. The bites will heal naturally and nothing will speed that up. You can use over-the-counter products to relieve the itching but you may need a prescription if you develop a skin infection from scratching. Common treatments include:

  • Topical anti-itch and anti-inflammatory medications such as calamine lotion, Cortaid (cortisone) cream, and diphenhydramine cream
  • Oral antihistamines, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine hydrochloride) or Atarax (hydroxyzine), a prescription strength antihistamine
  • Topical antiseptic or antibiotic lotion for bacterial infection or oral antibiotics

Although treating bedbug bites isn't difficult, actually getting rid of the bedbugs is another story. A professional exterminator can help.

You will need to discard infested mattresses, box springs, and pillows. You can heat treat or cold treat items such as clothing by laundering or freezing. However, the room itself will need to be treated to eliminate bedbugs that can live in cracks in walls, floors, and furniture.

In order to minimize your risk, you can:

  • Buy new furniture instead of used furniture
  • Seal the cracks and crevices in sleeping areas
  • Put your mattresses inside a bug-proof cover

A Word From Verywell

It is stressful and frustrating to deal with bedbugs, however, you are far from alone in managing this problem. Keep in mind that it is no reflection on how much care you take in cleaning your home or taking precautions when traveling. Be sure to care for yourself due to the stress that can result so you don't lose too much sleep.

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Article Sources
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