Bed Bug Q&A: Best Ways to Handle Bites, Protect Your Home

Learn what these pests look like, where they hide

woman showing her back with bed bug bites

Bed bugs. Do the mere words make your skin crawl? These tiny pests, while not dangerous, tend to create panic wherever they turn up.

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Fortunately, you can protect yourself and your family with a little bit of knowledge and some common-sense precautions.

Q: What evidence of bed bugs should I look for?

A: Bed bugs are usually flat, reddish-brown, and about the size and shape of an apple seed. They often look brown before they eat and take on a more reddish hue afterward.

Bed bugs typically only venture onto people when they are feeding; the rest of the time they hide. They tend to hang out in cracks and crevices, such as between the cushions of a couch or chair, or between a mattress and box spring.

Many times you will see evidence of bed bugs without seeing the bugs themselves. Small blood stains on sheets or pajamas and black or rust-colored spots — bed bug droppings — are signs of infestation.

Q: How can I tell a bed bug bite from that of other insects, such as fleas?

A: It is sometimes hard to tell the difference. If the bites appear only on the ankles or lower legs, I would suspect fleas, because they are often found in carpets. Bed bug bites can occur anywhere on exposed body parts and often appear in a linear pattern, with a series of multiple bites in a row.

Bed bug bites often have a little bloody spot or reddish bruise in the middle. They also are generally a little bit larger than flea bites, but a lot of that can depend on an individual person’s reaction to a bite.

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Q: What should I do if I think I’ve been bitten by a bed bug? 

A: Start by keeping the bite clean, washing it with soap and water every day. The bites often itch, so you can use an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream or other anti-itch cream if needed. The bites usually resolve within a week.

It’s important to watch for signs of infection. If the bite starts to get more red or swollen, starts to have discharge coming from it or becomes tender, you should see a doctor.

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Q: Can bed bugs spread diseases to people or pets?

A: There’s no known transmission of diseases from bed bugs to people. A bite can get infected if you don’t take care of it, but the bed bugs themselves don’t spread diseases like some other insects, such as ticks.

RELATED: How to Protect Yourself from Tick Bites and Lyme Disease

Q: I’ve heard that people often get bed bugs from hotels. How can I protect myself?

A: Start by doing a visual inspection of the room when you first arrive. I always pull the sheets back and check to see if I see anything on the sheets or mattress.

I also suggest putting your luggage on a luggage rack, or somewhere else away from the bed. Don’t put your suitcase on the bed or a chair, because if there is a problem with bed bugs they might get into your luggage and come home with you.

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It’s also a good idea to put your dirty clothes in a plastic bag and store it up high, like on a closet shelf, rather than on furniture or on the floor.

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Q: Are there other ways I might introduce bed bugs into my home?

A: You should be really careful when you buy used items from garage sales or resale shops. You should wash clothing or other washable items and then put them in the dryer on the highest setting as soon as you bring them home. If it’s an item like a stuffed animal that you can’t put into the washer, putting it in the dryer for 20 minutes on the highest setting will kill any bed bugs that are present.

Secondhand furniture is sometimes risky, so make sure to do a thorough visual inspection before bringing it into your home.

Q: What should I do if I think there’s an infestation in my home? 

A: You can start by vacuuming the areas where bed bugs tend to hide, but more than likely you’ll need to contact an exterminator. A qualified exterminator can tell you definitively whether you have bed bugs and discuss your treatment options.

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Michael Rabovsky, MD

Michael Rabovsky, MD, is Medical Advisor for the Health Essentials blog. He chairs the Department of Family Medicine in Cleveland Clinic’s Medicine Institute and actively promotes wellness and disease prevention.
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