Drawing pins. The mere mention of them might make your skin crawl.
These little critters are all too common, with one in five people in the United States reporting a previous infestation or knowing someone who has encountered them at home or while traveling, according to a National Pest Management Association survey. Unless they are infected, bed bug bites are almost always harmless. Still, that doesn’t make them any nicer.
If you think you have bed bug bites, what’s the best way to treat them? When to see a doctor for bed bug bites? Here is some additional information.
Signs and symptoms of bed bug bites
There are a few signs that can make you think you have bed bug bites, including the following:
- Bites that appear after sleeping. Bedbugs are most active in the dark, says Dr. Adam Friedman, professor and chair of dermatology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC
- Reddish bites on exposed skin at night, like your arms, hands, neck or torso, says Dr. Annie Gonzalez, a dermatologist certified by Riverchase Dermatology in Miami.
- Three bites that appear in a row. Friedman calls this a “breakfast, lunch, dinner” model. Indeed, the bedbug will bite in one area and then move to other areas to feast on a little more blood. Without this pattern, it can be difficult to distinguish bed bug bites from other insect bites, such as mosquito and spider bites, Gonzalez explains.
- Appearance of “black pepper” grains on your sheets or mattress, says New York-based allergist and internist Dr. Tania Elliott and national spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. This is what insects look like to the naked eye.
- Small droplets of blood on your sheets from where you were bitten.
Don’t rule out bed bugs if you sleep with a partner and only one of you is bitten. Bed bugs are attracted to the carbon dioxide that we breathe out when we breathe. You and other people in your home can have different levels of carbon dioxide, says Friedman. This can cause them to prefer to bite one person over another.
Although mattresses are the main place you can find bed bugs, they can live on other types of furniture, including upholstered furniture in a home or office. If a place is deeply infested, they can even be found in sneaky areas, like loose wallpaper and in electrical outlets. They can’t fly, but they will travel 5 to 20 feet from a hiding place to bite a host, Gonzalez says. Do not rule out furniture in public places, such as cinemas or public transportation, as a source of bedbug bites.
At-home and over-the-counter treatments for bedbugs
If you think you have bed bug bites, you’ll want to do your best to confirm the bedbugs are there. Look for some of the signs described above. Additionally, Friedman recommends turning off the lights at night and waiting 10 minutes. Then use a flashlight to inspect your mattress to see if they have emerged.
If you find bed bugs, clear your bed of its sheets, wash them, and dry them in the hottest temperatures possible, maybe even more than once. The heat will kill the insects. Also contact an exterminator and follow the advice he gives you. If you live in an apartment, let the owner know.
Bed bugs do not transmit diseases to humans. Of course, bites are annoying and could get infected, and you don’t want them to multiply and lead to an infestation.
For the bed bug bites themselves, there are a few steps you can take to soothe the itch and keep it from getting infected:
- Do not scratch them. “When you scratch an inflamed area, your risk of infection skyrockets,” says Friedman. Another reason not to scratch that itch: irritated bites can sometimes leave a dark mark on the skin that you might not want.
- Use ice packs several times a day to soothe the stings and help eliminate the itchy sensation.
- Moisturize the affected skin. Hydration can have a cooling effect, which should also help reduce itching.
- Use over-the-counter creams or topicals that can help relieve itching. These may include products with:
- Calamine lotion.
- Colloidal oatmeal.
- Hydrocortisone 1%.
- Lanolin, but not if you are allergic to it. Some people are, says Friedman.
- Sarna, a cream that contains camphor and menthol in its original formula.
These products work best when applied to damp skin. Usually the bites go away after a week or two.
When to see a doctor for bed bug bites
If your bed bug bite home remedies aren’t working after a few weeks, or if you find that you have more bites, it’s time to see a primary care doctor or dermatologist. There are a few other times when you will want to see a doctor for suspected bed bug bites:
- You are not quite sure what is causing the bites. Bed bug bites can also mimic a few other skin conditions, such as hives.
- You have swollen red skin with hives. An allergic reaction to bed bug bites is rare but still possible, says Gonzalez.
- The bites become more itchy, more painful, or they ooze pus.
Doctors will often use a prescription steroid cream for insect bites or an antibiotic for infection.
Travel bed bug prevention tips
With bed bugs commonly associated with travel, there are a few tips you can follow to help prevent bed bug bites on the road:
- Do not put your luggage on the bed. If you’ve got your luggage there for a minute or two, you should be safe. The important point is not to leave luggage on the bed for a long time or overnight when the bugs tend to come out, Friedman says. Instead, look for the fold-out luggage rack usually provided in hotel rooms, made of wood and canvas. If there isn’t one in the room, ask for one.
- Inspect for bed bugs before lying down, Elliott advises. Look behind the mattress and sheets. You can even strip the whole bed and redo it after you’ve examined everything. She also suggests not lying on mattresses at a mattress store when shopping. Put something clean between you and the mattress for extra protection, like a sheet.
- Beware of a room that smells musty, musty, or sweet. It could be a sign of an infestation, Gonzalez says.
- If you find bedbugs in your room, let the manager know and change rooms or hotels.. Plan to wash and dry all of your belongings in hot weather. Consider posting a review or writing a letter regarding the service you received and whether or not it was helpful to you.