How to Handle Bed Bugs and Their Bites

Learn what these pests look like and what you can do to deal with them

Bed bugs. Do these two words make your skin crawl? Most likely they do. 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.

Family practitioner Sarah Pickering Beers, MD, offers some pointers on how to identify, treat and prevent these tiny annoying invaders. She provides answers to common questions — from what bed bug bites look like and how to treat them, to  what to do if you have a bed bug infestation in your house.

What signs of bed bugs should I look for?

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. Gross, but true.

Bed bugs typically only jump onto people only when they’re feeding. The rest of the time, they hide. They tend to hang out in cracks and crevices of your furniture and blankets, such as between the cushions of a couch or chair, or between a mattress and box spring.

“You’ll often see evidence of bed bugs without actually seeing the bugs themselves,” Dr. Pickering Beers says. “For example, you may see small blood stains on your sheets or on your pajamas. Also look for black or rust-colored spots — these are bed bug droppings — on your clothes and bed linens. These are the most likely signs of an infestation.” 

How can I tell a bed bug bite from other insects like fleas?

It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

“The position of the bites on your body is definitely the first indicator,” Dr. Pickering Beers says.

“If the bites appear only on the ankles or lower legs it’s more than likely fleas, as they’re often found in carpets and can only jump so high. Bed bug bites on the other hand can occur anywhere on exposed body parts and often appear in a linear pattern, as a series of multiple bites in a row,” she adds.

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They’ll most likely get you while you’re sitting or lying down, which is how the bites can happen anywhere on your body.

Bed bug bites often have a little bloody spot or reddish bruise in the middle. They’re typically slightly larger than flea bites, but a lot of that can depend on an individual person’s reaction to a bite and how much inflammation occurs around the bite’s center.

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

“Start by keeping the bite clean. Wash it with soap and water every day to prevent infection and help it heal,” Dr. Pickering Beers says.

Wash and change your sheets, including the comforter or duvet cover, and vacuum your mattresses and furniture cushions so they don’t repopulate or re-infest.

The bites often itch, so she recommends using an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream or other anti-itch cream if needed. 

Bed bug bites will usually heal within a week.

“It’s important to watch for any signs of infection,” Dr. Pickering Beers advises. “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.”

Can bed bugs spread diseases to people or pets?

There’s no known transmission of diseases from bed bugs to people or pets. Although the bed bugs themselves don’t spread diseases like some other insects do — like ticks, for example.

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People can get bed bugs from hotels and travel. How can I protect myself?

Start by doing a visual inspection of the room when you first arrive. Make it a habit to pull the sheets back and check to see if you see bugs, blood spots or browns spots on the sheets or mattress.

It’s also a good idea to put 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’s a problem with bed bugs they might get into your luggage and come home with you.

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. As soon as you return home from traveling, wash all of your travel clothes immediately in hot soapy water and dry on high heat.

How else do bed bugs get into my home?

You should also be careful buying used items from garage sales or resale shops — like used clothing, furniture, linens and fabric-made toys.

To avoid spreading existing bed bugs from these items, wash them immediately in hot soapy water and again, put them in the dryer on the highest setting. (If it’s an item you can’t put into the washer, put it in the dryer for 20 minutes on the highest setting, which should kill any bed bugs that are present.)

Secondhand furniture is risky from widespread use, so make sure to do a thorough visual inspection before bringing it into your home. It may also be possible to remove and wash or replace older fabric.

I think there’s an infestation in my home, what can I do?

Start by vacuuming the areas where bed bugs tend to hide, washing fabrics and surfaces in that room with hot water and baking soda, a steam cleaner or other deep cleaning tools that both clean on contact and suck up and remove the bugs and any eggs.

“More than likely you’ll need to contact an exterminator. A qualified exterminator can of course tell you definitively whether you have bed bugs and discuss your treatment options,” Dr. Pickering Beers says.

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