Infestations can be surprisingly hard to get rid of and the bite marks themselves are not always easy to tell apart. Insects can also carry diseases; this makes bug bites more than just everyday annoyances. Knowing the difference between flea bites and bed bug bites will help you tell whether you’re dealing with bed bugs or fleas, and identify what pest to get rid of.
Short of catching an insect in the act, the most readily available way to identify the bug you’re dealing with is to look at the bite itself. All insects feast on you in different ways and will leave different marks if you know what to look for.
Flea Bites vs Bed Bug Bites
|Bite Shape||Swollen, red, often appear in clusters.
Have a white “halo” when skin is
pressed or stretched. May blister.
|Itchy, small inflamed lumps
(e.g. mosquito bites) that tend to
appear in lines.
|Bite Location||Legs, feet, waist, armpits, pets||Hands, neck, arms|
|Frequency of Bites||Continual||Periodic|
What are Flea Bites?
Flea bites are most commonly found on the legs, feet, waist, or armpits but can appear anywhere the insect has access to. The bites will look red, swollen, somewhat blotchy, and will constantly itch. They commonly come with rashes as well. Flea bites also tend to appear in small clusters and can have a white “halo” shape immediately around the puncture mark.
The halo is easier to see when you stretch the skin or press your finger onto the bite location. After a few days it is possible for a flea bite to blister, but this isn’t guaranteed.
What are Bed Bug Bites?
Bed bug bites are different from flea bites and resemble small, hard, swollen lumps similar to a mosquito bite and appear most often on the hands, neck, and arms. Like with fleas, bed bug bites will itch as well, but they don’t provoke the rash response fleas can trigger. It’s also important to note that bed bugs tend to feed in a line, so their bites will have a more linear pattern than the clusters of flea bites. Bed bug bites lack the halo feature but often appear inflamed and can blister over time.
The difference in frequency of the bites should also be considered. Bed bugs only tend to eat every few days so their bites will appear less regularly. Fleas, on the other hand, eat continuously so their bites will be a recurrent feature if the insects aren’t dealt with.
Identifying Signs of Flea Bites and Bed Bug Bites
There are more ways to tell whether you are dealing with fleas or bed bugs than just looking at the physical symptoms. For example, fleas are rarely bigger than the tip of a pen so they can be hard to spot. If you think you’ve found one, pay attention to the legs and the shape of the body. Fleas have thin, flat, brown bodies with a hard shell and no wings but their hind legs are large and strong for jumping.
When looking for fleas, pay attention to the following:
- Fleas prefer animals and any pets you have will likely be itching or biting themselves. They may also develop patches of lost fur. You can use a flea comb to check your pets for any fleas or flea eggs—stay alert when combing because they can be surprisingly fast.
- Another sign of fleas are flecks of what appear to be dirt. This is actually flea feces and the small dots will leave red rings of blood if you touch it with a wet tissue.
- Finally, you can try wearing long white socks. This will make it easier to tell if the brown fleas are jumping on you.
Evidence of bed bugs, on the other hand, can often be found on your bed:
- When cleaning or changing sheets, keep an eye out for rusty stains that may have resulted from you rolling over and crushing a bed bug in your sleep.
- There may also be dark spots about this size ==> * <== that seem to have bled into the fabric. This is bed bug feces.
- You may also see live bed bugs, which are easier to spot than fleas since bed bugs are larger. A bed bug has a flat, oval shape with a reddish brown appearance. Bed bugs don’t jump or fly and are fairly easy to capture if you want to take one to get it tested for confirmation.
Health Risks of Fleas and Bed Bugs
Barring a rare allergic reaction, flea and bed bug bites are more often an annoyance than anything else, and bed bugs specifically are not known to carry any diseases harmful to humans. Flea bites are slightly more worrisome, however, since fleas are known carriers of typhoid, tapeworms, and plague, although all three of these are rare in the U.S.
The biggest risk would be a flea infestation combined with a cat, since the flea can possibly transmit a condition called cat scratch fever. If the infected cat scratches you it could result in loss of appetite, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, and headaches, but it can become more serious if you are immunocompromised.
Flea bites and bed bug bites can be very itchy. Constant itching will break the skin and make you more vulnerable to other infections, so it is very important to resist the impulse.
Treating Flea Bites and Bed Bug Bites
Calamine lotion or cold compresses can soothe a bite and reduce the itchiness. If you have scratched and broken open a blister, you should wash the area with warm soapy water and then pat dry as a precautionary measure against infection. There are also some natural remedies that can relieve the itching:
- Mix water and baking soda into a paste that you apply to the bites. Leave it on for one hour before washing off with warm water.
- Dab at the bites with cotton balls dipped in lemon juice, witch hazel or St. John’s wort.
- Coat bites with aloe.
- Take a warm bath with half a cup of peppermint oil, baking soda, “Alka-Seltzer”, or Epsom salt.
Getting Rid of Fleas and Bed Bugs
The hardest part about dealing with flea bites and bed bug bites is getting rid of the source. Bed bugs are different from flea bites. They don’t have central nests like, say, ants, so tracking down and killing all of them requires a highly focused effort. Fleas also breed remarkably fast and can replenish their numbers if not taken out in a single sweep.
It’s best to consult with a pest control expert on what your options are. Depending on the severity of your problem, it may be possible to get rid of the bugs without resorting to fumigation.
Sources for Today’s Article:
“7 Common Signs and Symptoms of a Flea Bite,” Symptomfind.com, September 16, 2015; http://www.symptomfind.com/diseases-conditions/7-common-signs-and-symptoms-of-a-flea-bite/.
Holland, K., “Is It a Flea Bite?: Symptoms and Treatments,” Healthline web site, September 26, 2013; http://www.healthline.com/health-slideshow/flea-bites#3.