Scabies vs. Bedbugs: What Are the Differences?

You’re not alone if you’re confused about the difference between scabies and bedbugs. The bites of these annoying pests can look quite similar, and both can cause irritating itching.

But it’s important to note that each type of infestation requires a different treatment approach. Some slight differences in how the bites appear on the body can help you determine whether you’re dealing with scabies or bedbugs.

This article will present information about identifying these pests, symptoms of an infestation, bite treatment methods, how to get rid of an infestation, and how to prevent one. 

Bedbugs

Matteo Lanciano / Getty Images

What Are Scabies and Bedbugs? 

Bedbugs are tiny blood-sucking insects. The nocturnal insects tend to live in places near where humans sleep at night, like around mattresses. Because they feed at night, the first sign of an infestation may not be bedbugs themselves but their bites. 

At some point, though, if you have a bedbug infestation, you’re likely to spot the bugs crawling around near where you sleep. Some physical characteristics of bedbugs include:

  • No wings
  • Flat, oval-shaped body
  • Brown in color before feeding, red after feeding
  • About 5 to 7 millimeters (mm) in length 

Unlike bedbugs, scabies mites burrow into the skin and feed on the tissue. Cousins of ticks, these microscopic mites lay eggs and tunnel through the skin, spreading the scabies rash. 

While you can see bedbugs without a microscope, scabies mites are microscopic, and the tell-tale rash will signal you have a scabies infestation.

How to Identify Each

Here are some key signs of each type of infestation. 

Infestation Signs of Scabies

Because scabies mites live on the skin, the primary sign of an infestation is a rash and intense itching. Scabies infestations are more common in areas of the body with skin folds. 

People typically contract scabies by having prolonged skin-to-skin contact with someone who has an infestation. The mites can also live on things like towels and clothes, so indirect spread is possible, though more common with a certain type of scabies infestation called crusted scabies.

Infestation Signs of Bedbugs 

You might suspect you have a bedbug infestation because you’ve spotted an insect that looks like a bedbug, or you’ve been waking up with itchy bites on your skin. But it can be tough to tell the difference between a bite from a bedbug and other insects.

Here are some other signs you have a bedbug infestation on your hands, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association:

  • A particular smell: If a room has a sweet, musty odor, that’s a sign there’s a serious infestation nearby. 
  • Stains and debris on your sheets or bedding: Tiny droplets or specks of blood in or around your bed are another sign of a bedbug infestation. You might also spot black specks, which may be bedbug feces. Bedbugs also periodically shed their exoskeletons, which you may be able to see on bedding and upholstered furniture. 
  • Bedbug eggs: While tiny and hard to spot, if you have a bedbug infestation, you may be able to spot white, oval bedbug eggs in crevices around your sleeping area.

Symptoms 

Symptoms of bedbug bites may include:

  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Clusters of three to five bites
  • Zigzag pattern 

Symptoms of scabies may include: 

  • A red rash
  • Pus-filled bumps, more typical in young children 
  • Itching, often at night
  • Tiny grayish-white burrows or lines in the skin
  • Crusting with certain types of scabies infestations 
  • Rash on the hands, arms, buttocks, nipple area, waistline, penis, and any skin covered by jewelry, (rarely do these mites affect the neck or face)

Symptoms can take up to eight weeks to appear in people who have not had scabies before. You’ll experience symptoms much sooner, in as fast as one to four days, if you've had it before.

Treatment

Scabies Rash

There are no over-the-counter (OTC) remedies for scabies. If you believe you have a scabies rash, it’s essential to see a healthcare provider for prescription scabicide, a topical treatment that’s formulated to kill the mites. 

Your healthcare provider may recommend that everyone in your household undergo treatment to prevent a recurrence. It can take up to four weeks for the mites to go away entirely, and some people may need a second course of treatment.  

In some cases, people may have itching that continues even after the mites have been eliminated. If this happens, you may want to ask a healthcare provider about treatment for the rash itself.

Bedbug Bites 

Most bedbug bites will go away on their own. Often you can handle the discomfort and itching with some home remedies. Because bedbugs don’t typically spread disease, your main concern with bites will be treating the itching and preventing infection.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends cleaning bites with soap and water and applying corticosteroid cream to minimize itching and swelling. Keep in mind that bedbug bites will continue until you get rid of the infestation.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Bedbug bites only require intervention from a healthcare provider if they become infected or you experience a severe allergic reaction
Since there’s no OTC treatment for scabies, it’s crucial to see a healthcare provider for a prescription. 

How to Get Rid of Infestations 

Scabies

If a person in a household has scabies, keep in mind that the mites die when they are not in contact with human skin for two to three days.

Machine wash bedding, clothing, and towels in hot water and dry in a hot dryer (dry-cleaning will also decontaminate articles). If you can't wash or dry clean an item, keep it away from contact with skin for at least 72 hours.

People with crusted scabies are more infectious, so in addition to the cleaning listed, also carefully vacuum furniture and carpets in the rooms they use.

Bedbugs 

Your action plan will depend on how large of an infestation you have. Prompt treatment of the infestation is important to prevent the problem from spreading further. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some things you can do to prevent an infestation from spreading and getting worse include:

  • Use caulk to seal hiding areas. 
  • Seal any infested items in air-tight plastic bags. Either treat the items or keep them in storage for a year to kill any remaining bedbugs.
  • Vacuum thoroughly and always dispose of the vacuum bag outside. 
  • Get rid of anything you can’t properly treat or vacuum and clearly mark that it’s bedbug-ridden. 

Some options for killing bedbugs yourself include:

  • Non-chemical treatment methods like a hot hair dryer or steam cleaner
  • EPA-registered pesticides 
  • Bedbug traps

While it’s possible to kill bedbugs yourself, it may be a good idea to call a pest control professional—especially if you’re dealing with a serious infestation. 

Prevention 

Scabies 

The main way to prevent scabies is to avoid skin-to-skin contact with someone who has an active infestation. You’re more likely to get scabies if you sleep or have sex with someone who has it. 

The mites can’t survive longer than three days off of human skin, so avoiding contact with potentially infested items for several days is enough to prevent scabies.

Bedbug Bites 

Because a bedbug infestation can be tough to get rid of once established, prevention is the best cure. 

The EPA recommends the following prevention measures:

  • Carefully inspect your hotel room for bedbugs while traveling.
  • Carefully check any second-hand items before bringing them into your home. 
  • Use protective covers for your mattress. 
  • Keep clutter to a minimum to leave fewer potential hiding spots for pests like bedbugs.
  • Vacuum often.
  • Be cautious when doing laundry in a shared facility.

Summary 

Bedbugs and scabies mites are pests that can both cause itching and extreme discomfort.

Bedbugs are brown, oval-shaped insects that you can spot with the naked eye, while scabies mites are microscopic. Bedbugs live in crevices near where people sleep, while scabies mites live on human skin.

Treatment for these two pests is very different. Once you get rid of a scabies infestation, you don’t have to worry about treating surfaces and areas in your home since the mites can’t live long off of human skin. Bedbugs, however, can hide and keep reproducing as long as they have access to blood.

A Word From Verywell 

It can be upsetting to realize you may have bedbugs or scabies. There’s stigma and embarrassment associated with each of these pest infestations. But know that anyone can contract either scabies or bedbugs. They’re not necessarily a sign of uncleanliness or poor hygiene. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are scabies and bedbugs contagious?

    Bedbugs can live without feeding for up to 14 days, so they can easily hitch a ride on luggage, clothing, or furniture. 

    You can only get scabies from prolonged skin-to-skin contact. 

  • Can you find scabies in your bed?

    The mites can live for up to three days off of human skin, but since they’re microscopic, you can't see them. 

  • What do scabies bites look like?

    Scabies is a skin condition caused by a scabies mite infestation. The mites don’t actually produce bites. Instead, they burrow into and feed on skin tissue. This can look like a rash, and you may be able to see grey-white streaks on the skin. In some cases, scabies can also cause pimple-like pustules. With crusted scabies, the skin can take on a crusted appearance. 

  • How can you tell if you have bedbugs or scabies?

    It’s possible to visually spot bedbugs, but the bites are often the first sign of an infestation. You might also see tiny red or black specks of blood or excrement on your bedding or smell a sweet, musty odor. 
    You can tell you have scabies because you develop a rash that tends to itch only at night.

  • How long does it take for bedbug bites to appear?

    It can take up to 14 days for bites to appear. 

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Bed bugs appearance and life cycle.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Scabies frequently asked questions (FAQs)

  3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Bed bugs: diagnosis and treatment

  4. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Scabies: signs and symptoms.

  5. Environmental Protection Agency. Do-it-yourself bed bug control

  6. Environmental Protection Agency. Protecting your home from bed bugs