How To Treat Bed Bug Bites
Bed bugs are difficult to spot. They’re minuscule, about the size of an apple seed. They’re nocturnal, meaning they’re only active at night. They are also quite fond of hiding in places that are out of sight, like between a mattress and box spring, behind the headboard of a bed frame, and even behind the electrical outlet covers on the wall.
It’s no surprise, then, that most people who have a bed bug infestation don’t learn about it by finding a bed bug. Their first clue is usually waking up covered in bed bug bites.
If you’ve got bed bugs in your home, you’re their source of nourishment. Unlike some other pests, they have no interest in living on your body or in your hair. Instead, they will typically camp out near your bed, wait for you to call it a night, and then feed on your blood while you sleep.
During those feedings, they pierce the skin and drain your blood through an elongated beak. The whole process lasts about ten minutes, but it won’t wake you up and you won’t feel a thing while it’s happening because bed bugs also secrete an anesthetic when they bite.
While you may not feel the bed bugs feed on you, you very well could feel the bites soon after. They’re often uncomfortable and unpleasant, and they’re unsightly, too.
In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about bed bug bites and how to treat them and relieve the discomfort they cause.
What Are the Symptoms of Bed Bug Bites?
The most common symptom of bed bug bites is a welt (usually a series of welts). These welts are usually red and inflamed.
If you have those welts, you might be relieved that, as nasty as they look, they don’t cause much discomfort. That relief is usually short-lived, however, since bed bug bites are terribly itchy to most people. It’s just that it normally takes a few days, or even up to two weeks, before you start feeling it.
Bed bugs usually target the skin that you leave exposed while you sleep. For most people, that means the face, neck, hands, and arms. But it doesn’t mean that bud bug bites won’t show up anywhere else. Bed bugs are tiny and can easily crawl under your pajamas or covers to find new spots to feed on.
Bed bug bites also tend to have a distinctive pattern. Rather than being clustered at random, bed bug bites are usually arranged in either a straight line or a zig-zag pattern.
The severity of the symptoms also depends on the sensitivity of the individual. It’s not unheard of for two people to share the same bed but only one of them shows the typical symptoms of bed bug bites, while the other is blessed either without noticeable welts or with welts that either don’t itch or only itch mildly.
How Can You Be Sure It’s Bed Bugs?
Bed bugs aren’t the only insects whose bites will leave you with red, itchy welts. When bug bites start showing up on your skin, you’ll have to rule out these other biters to be sure that you’ve been bitten by bed bugs.
When comparing bed bug bites and mosquito bites, the pattern of the welts is the best indicator of what kind of bug you’re dealing with.
As mentioned above, bed bugs tend to leave bites in a straight line or in a zig-zag pattern. Mosquitos, on the other hand, will just bite whatever part of your skin they happen to land on. If you have several mosquito bites, then, they’re unlikely to have any kind of arrangement.
It’s hard to tell bed bug bites from flea bites, but you can usually figure out which you’ve got based on where they are on your body.
Bed bug bites commonly show up on the upper body, especially the arms, hands, and face. Flea bites, on the other hand, are almost always found on your lower half, especially around the ankles.
While you can tell a mosquito bite from its lack of pattern or a flea bite from its location, with spiders your clue will be the number of bites.
If you’re dealing with bed bugs, you’ll likely have several bites and welts. Spiders, on the other hand, typically only bite once. If you find a single bite on your skin, then, it’s far more likely to be a spider bite than a bug bite. This is especially true if the bite looks severe and is seriously painful.
Bed Bug Bite Treatments and Why They’re Effective
Before we discuss treatments you can use to alleviate the itchiness and get rid of bed bug bites more quickly, it’s important to note that you’ll also need to take steps to deal with your bed bug infestation. Until you get rid of the bed bug problem in your home, you’ll continue to wake up with new bed bug bites on your skin. So, in addition to treating your bites, call an exterminator or get the supplies you need to exterminate the bed bugs yourself.
I’m putting this one first because it was my mom’s go-to bug bite solution. If an insect ever bit or stung me, she would reach for the bottle of pink stuff and dab it on my skin.
Calamine lotion is an over-the-counter lotion that contains zinc oxide and a bit of iron oxide (which is what gives it its distinctive pink color).
To apply calamine lotion, dab a small amount on the affected area, either using cotton, a cotton swab, or just your finger. Leave the layer of lotion on the skin and try not to rub it or get it wet. Allow it to dry.
Be sure to shake the bottle vigorously before using it, since the ingredients can separate when it’s been shitting on the shelf a while.
The American Academy of Dermatologists recommends this simple technique for relieving the itch from bug bites.
Simply wash the area that has been bitten and apply a thick lather of soap to it. Leave the soap on. Instead of rinsing it off, let it air dry. Once it does, it should tone down your urge to scratch.
Make sure to use a mild soap or at least one you’re already familiar with. Some soaps will cause irritation or dry skin for certain people, so avoid anything with too many added or synthetic ingredients.
Cooling the affected area can give temporary relief from the itchiness. Ice and ice packs work really well for this but don’t apply them directly to your skin. Direct contact with that much cold will cause discomfort and could even cause frostbite if applied for too long. Instead, wrap them in a towel or cloth before pressing it against the bug bite.
Another way to get relief from the itch is to create a paste by mixing baking soda with a small amount of water. Add the water in slowly and gradually, mixing each time. You don’t need much, but too little will give you more of a clumpy powder than a paste and too much will make it too watery to apply properly.
Once you’ve made the mixture, you apply it the same way you would calamine lotion or soap. Lather the baking soda paste on the affected area and let it sit without rinsing. Once it dries, you should feel some relief from the itch.
Aloe gel relieves all sorts of uncomfortable physical sensations, including itchiness from bug bites, while also moisturizing your skin. Simply rub it on the affected area for some itch relief.
Pure aloe gel will be most effective, so look for that instead of lotions or creams that contain aloe as one of its main ingredients. Better yet, you can keep an aloe plant on hand and get the gel directly from it.
Lemon or Lime Juice
Because of their high citric acid content, lemon juice and lime juice are both natural anti-inflammatories and astringents. That means they will reduce the redness and swelling while also relieving the itchiness.
To apply, soak some lemon or lime juice into a clean cloth, a cotton ball, or a cotton swab and dab it on the bites.
Applying lemon or lime juice to an open wound will result in painful stinging. So, if you have already been scratching at the bites and making them worse, you should use an alternative method.
Many people swear by oatmeal baths to relieve some of the symptoms of eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea. They’re also quite effective when you’re dealing with bed bug bites.
The cellulose from the oats soothe the skin and relieve the itchy sensation from any type of bug bite, including those from bed bugs. Oats also contain vitamin E, which acts as an anti-inflammatory and can reduce the redness and swelling. They’ll also leave your skin feeling softer.
To make an oatmeal bath, grind up about a cup of oats until they have the consistency of a coarse powder. Fill the tub as you normally would and add the ground oats to the water. Bathe in it for at least 30 minutes to relieve the itching sensation. You can also rub some of the oatmeal on your bites for a more effective treatment.
When looking up this method, you might see references to colloidal oatmeal, but don’t rush out looking for that product on the shelves of your local supermarket or pharmacy. “Colloidal oatmeal” is simply the term used for oatmeal that has been ground up and mixed in with a liquid (in this case, the water in your bathtub).
There are a few essential oils that people swear by when it comes to relieving itchiness and treating bed bug bites. Here are three that you might want to consider:
- Lavender oil: soothes the skin and alleviates itchiness and discomfort from bed bug bites
- Basil oil: acts as an anti-inflammatory that will reduce the swelling and redness while helping with the itchiness and preventing infection
- Tea tree oil: relieves itchiness and swelling while also killing bacteria to prevent infection
- Chamomile oil: acts as an emollient, meaning it will reduce the redness and irritation
Essential oils are highly concentrated, and applying pure essential oils to the skin can actually cause irritation. To be on the safe side, you can dilute it with a carrier substance, like coconut oil or sweet almond oil, or purchase a cream or lotion that has the essential oil as one of the ingredients.
The one exception here is lavender oil – it can be applied directly to the skin without causing any damage to it.
Corticosteroid creams are available over the counter and they’re used for treating various dermatological issues. In the case of bed bug bites, they will lessen the inflammation and redness while also dealing with the itchiness.
Apply the cream to the bites and rub it in gently. The instructions on the packaging should tell you how much to apply, but it normally doesn’t take much. A bit of cream on your fingertip for each bite should be sufficient.
If a doctor prescribed corticosteroid cream to help you deal with another skin condition, don’t use it to treat your bed bug bites unless specifically instructed to by a dermatologist or other medical professional. Over-the-counter corticosteroid creams contain no more than 1% active ingredient, which makes it safe to use. Prescription-strength creams can be much more concentrated, which can result in complications if they’re used without the guidance of a doctor.
It’s also important to note that the skin on your face is highly sensitive compared to the skin on your arms and chests. Because of this, medical professionals advise not using a topical steroid like corticosteroid cream on your face unless recommended by a doctor. So, if you have bed bug bites above the neck, try a different solution instead.
Some people have an allergic reaction to bed bug bites. If you’re one of them, taking an antihistamine can help you manage the symptoms, like rashes.
The most common type of antihistamine is administered orally. Most people know it under one of its commercial names: Benadryl. Most adults can take one or two doses of an oral antihistamine every six hours (but consult the packaging to make sure you’re getting the recommended dose). If that’s not enough to relieve your symptoms, don’t take more. Instead, make an appointment with a physician and ask them what treatment they recommend instead.
Another option is to use an antihistamine cream that you can rub on the affected area. These are available over the counter from just about any pharmacy.
How Long Do Bed Bug Bites Usually Last?
It can take a few days to a couple of weeks before you start feeling the first symptoms of a bed bug bite. But once you do, you’ll be impatient to be rid of them. The red welts can be very noticeable and they’re usually on a very visible part of your body, like your face and arms. On top of that, there’s the itching. Depending on your sensitivity, it could range anywhere from tolerable to unbearable.
The good news is that you probably won’t need to clench your fists to keep yourself from scratching for much longer. Bed bug bites typically heal and disappear after one to two weeks.
Individual differences do play a role here, though. While most people will be rid of the bites within two weeks, it might take closer to three weeks for those with especially sensitive skin.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to speed up the natural healing process. But there are two things you can do to make sure that a bed bug bite doesn’t take longer to heal than it should.
First, you should keep the bite and the area around the bite clean. Wash the skin with warm water and antibacterial soap. Doing this regularly (at least once a day) will help you prevent the bites from getting infected. Infections will prolong your recovery time and come with a few other extra symptoms that will make the experience even worse than it already is, so make sure you stay clean.
Second, if you find it difficult to resist scratching the bites, do something to treat the itch. Scratching your bed bug bites will aggravate the inflammation and could cause further damage to your skin, which will prolong your healing time. In the last section, I went over the methods people use for itch relief. Pick the one that is easiest or works best for you and use it.
And of course, as mentioned above, start taking steps to exterminate the bed bugs in your home. If you don’t, you’ll have new bites by the time you recover from the ones you currently have and the redness, swelling, and itching will start all over again.
When Should You Seek Medical Help for Bed Bug Bites?
Bed bug bites are a nuisance, but in almost every case they’re not much worse than that.
Bed bugs also don’t carry diseases, so you don’t have to worry about their bites infecting you with something worse.
But there are still some rare situations where a bed bug bite will require medical attention.
Although bed bugs don’t spread infections, the bed bug bites themselves can become infected, especially if you scratch at them too much.
If your bed bug bites become infected, it’s best to consult a doctor to find out how severe the infection is and what steps you can take to deal with it.
Some people are allergic to bed bug bites and have stronger reactions to them than most people. They might break out in hives or blisters, or simply experience far more intense itching.
If this is the case for you, you should seek a doctor to help you manage your allergies.
In extremely rare cases, people will develop some very severe and worrisome symptoms from bed bug bites. These are the result of anaphylactic shock, a reaction to allergies that occurs when the body’s immune system goes into overdrive and releases too many chemicals to fight off the allergic reaction.
The symptoms include the swelling of the tongue and difficulty breathing, having a fever or feeling very sick, and an irregular or forceful heartbeat.
If you have any of these symptoms or any similar ones, understand that they are serious and you should see a doctor immediately.
Bed bug bites are rarely serious, though they are unpleasant. Unlike mosquito bites, you’ll rarely have just one, which makes them even more difficult to bear.
The best way to treat bed bug bites is simple: simply keep them clean using antibacterial soap and avoid scratching them. If you can do that, you’ll prevent an infection or further skin damage, and the bites should heal and disappear within a week or two.
If you have a hard time resisting the urge to itch, there are plenty of home remedies and some over-the-counter creams and ointments that will help you relieve the discomfort.
Although bed bug bites are usually quite benign, be on the lookout for more severe reactions to them. These are rare, but they will require medical attention.
Now that you know how to treat bed bug bites, your next step is to deal with the bed bugs themselves. If the bites showed up after you stayed in a hotel room or a friend’s guest bedroom that was infested with bed bugs, you should still inspect your own sleeping area. Bed bugs are very easy to spread and they are very good at escaping notice when hiding in bags and on clothes. If you were bitten by bed bugs outside your home, there’s a good chance at least one of those bugs found its way into your bedroom.
Remember, the only way to prevent bed bug bites is to deal with the bed bugs themselves.