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25th August, 20218 min read

What do bedbug bites look like?

Medical reviewer:Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:Dr Ann Nainan
Last reviewed: 18/08/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

How to identify a bedbug bite

Bedbug bites are small skin wounds or punctures from a bedbug’s mouth parts – these tiny insects like feeding on human blood. You’ll usually see red welts in a line or zigzag pattern if you’ve been bitten, and they can be itchy.

Bedbugs usually hide in your bedding or mattress and come out at night to feed, so you’re more likely to get bitten on areas that aren’t covered up when you sleep, like your arms and face.

Bedbugs bites aren’t usually serious and clear up without any treatment within a week. These bugs don’t spread any diseases and you usually don’t get a serious reaction to their bites. But sometimes, you may get more serious symptoms, including a serious allergic reaction, so you may need to see a doctor or get emergency medical help.

What are the symptoms of bedbug bites?

Bedbugs can be different colours like dark yellow, red or brown. But you won’t usually see them, as even their adults are tiny at only about 5mm long. And you won’t feel their bite, so you may think you’ve been bitten by fleas, spiders or mosquitoes.

You may only realise you’ve been bitten by a bedbug when you wake up in the morning, or when you get symptoms a day or more after being bitten, including:

  • clusters of small, red, itchy bites – each cluster usually has about 3 to 5 bites in a line or zigzag pattern
  • flat purple spots, tiny holes or blisters
  • larger red areas of bites with swelling around them
  • rashes that keep coming and going

Other than these symptoms, other signs of bedbugs include small spots of blood on your bedding or furniture – from the bites or from squashing a bedbug – and tiny brown dots, which is bedbug poo.

If you have a serious outbreak, or infestation in your home, they may cause a bad smell too.

In rare cases, bedbug bites can cause serious symptoms that need urgent medical treatment, including the severe allergic reaction anaphylaxis. Symptoms may include certain body parts swelling up, a fast heartbeat, trouble breathing, fainting and other serious symptoms. Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening, so you need to get emergency medical help.

Read more about the 9 common types of insect bites.

When to see a doctor about bedbug bites

Call an ambulance immediately if you’ve been bitten and have any signs of anaphylaxis including:

  • trouble breathing or talking
  • feeling dizzy or faint, or fainting
  • a fast heartbeat
  • feeling confused and anxious
  • feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting)

If you’ve been scratching your bedbug bites, you may get a skin infection. See a doctor as soon as possible if:

  • your symptoms are getting worse or haven’t started to get better within a few days
  • the skin around the bites is very sore, hot and swollen
  • the swelling and redness around the bites is spreading
  • you get painful blisters
  • you have swollen glands
  • you feel unwell or dizzy
  • you have a high temperature (fever)

For some people, having a bedbug infestation in their homes can be stressful, so speak to a doctor if you feel very anxious about it and aren’t sleeping, for example.

What causes bedbug bites?

Bedbugs feed on your blood by piercing your skin with their needle-like mouth parts – usually while you sleep. They feed on some animals too and can live for months without feeding.

Bedbugs are usually found where they feed, which is usually where you sleep, including any type of house, hotels, buses, trains, cruise ships and hostels. They may live on your bed linen, mattress or clothes. They can also live in your furniture, plug sockets or behind wallpaper or picture frames.

How do bedbugs spread?

Bedbugs can spread quickly and are hard to control, so it’s best to get rid of them as soon as possible. They can live in different rooms in your home or you may pick them up on holiday in a hotel room, for example, and bring them back home in your luggage or clothing.

Read more about how to get rid of bedbugs in the Treatment section below.

How are bedbug bites diagnosed?

A doctor will usually ask you questions about your symptoms and take a look at the bites on your skin. They’ll also ask if any other people in your household have any symptoms to determine if you have a bedbug infestation.

Based on your symptoms, a doctor will decide on the best treatment.

The treatment for bedbug bites

You don’t always need to do anything if you have a bedbug bite – they usually go away by themselves after 1 week.

Try these self-care measures to help with your symptoms:

  • put a cold compress like a clean, damp cloth or an ice pack on the bites to help with the itching and swelling
  • don’t scratch the bites and keep the area clean so you don’t get infections
  • medicines like antihistamines or steroid creams or ointments (usually hydrocortisone) to help with any pain or itchiness – speak to a pharmacist first about the best medicine to use
  • simple painkillers to relieve any pain

If you need to see a doctor for a skin infection, you may be given antibiotics. If you’ve had an allergic reaction to the bedbug bites, they may give you steroid tablets to calm down your body’s reaction. And if you’ve got anaphylaxis, a doctor may give you an adrenaline injection.

Read more about infected insect bites and the best treatment for insect bites.

How to get rid of bedbugs in your home

It’s tricky to get rid of bedbugs because they’re very good at hiding and at finding new places to hide. They can also be resistant to some insecticides, so it’s best if you don’t try to get rid of them yourself and rather get a professional pest control service to help you.

A pest control service may use insecticides or heat treatment to help get rid of the bedbugs. They may also have special equipment to help dig out the insects from the cracks they're hiding in.

To get rid of any bedbugs in your clothing or bed linen, wash them at 60C for 30 minutes – or put them in plastic bags and into a freezer for 4 days to kill the bugs.

How to prevent a bedbug infestation

Try these measures to help make sure you don’t have to deal with a bedbug outbreak in your home:

  • make sure you clean and vacuum your home regularly – bedbugs nest in both dirty and clean areas, but this will help you spot any signs of bedbugs, like bedbug poo, early
  • keep your bedroom clean, tidy and clutter-free
  • if you buy used items like furniture or clothes, make sure you carefully check them for bedbugs first
  • wrap your mattress in plastic, as these small insects won’t be able to get in and, if they’re already on your mattress, they’ll suffocate in the plastic

Try these tips when travelling so you don’t bring bedbugs back into your home:

  • when staying in a new place, check to see if you can see any signs of these insects like bedbug poo, including in the bedding, mattress or furniture
  • keep your luggage and any other bags closed and off the floor, as bedbugs like to crawl into bags lying on the floor
  • put any dirty clothing into a sealed plastic bag, as bedbugs like crawling into dirty clothing

How long does it take for a bedbug bite to get better?

Bedbug bites usually go away by themselves after 1 week. But if bedbugs have infested your home, you may keep getting new bites. This is why it’s best to get a professional pest control service into your home as soon as you realise you have an outbreak, as it’s the only way to make sure you don’t get bitten again and again.

If you get a bedbug infection or an allergic reaction, you may need medication and it will take longer for the bites to heal.

Your health questions answered

What can be mistaken for bedbug bites?

Bedbug bites are easy to confuse with other insect bites, as many insect bites cause small, red, itchy bumps like bedbugs do. And like bedbugs, insects like spiders, mosquitoes and fleas also tend to bite you at night, so you’ll wake up and find the bites on your skin. Bedbugs usually bite you in areas where you aren't covered up, like on your face, neck and feet. You can usually identify their bites because they’re in groups or clusters of a few bites – these bites may be grouped in a line or zigzag pattern. But the only way of knowing for sure if you’ve been bitten by bedbugs is if you actually find them in your home. Read more about the symptoms of insect bites.

Key takeaways

  • bedbugs are small insects that like to feed on human blood
  • bedbugs are mainly active at night and can be hidden in your furniture, mattress, bedding and clothes
  • when a bedbug bites you, you’ll see a line or zigzag pattern of red, itchy bumps
  • bedbug bites usually get better by themselves after a week, but you may need antibiotics if they get infected
  • bedbug infestations are hard to get rid of, so it’s best to get a professional pest control service to help you
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