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.
Fleas vs. Bed Bugs
First, there are several important differences between fleas and bed bugs. This easy chart will help you detect which pest may be bothering you.
|Bed Bugs vs. Fleas|
|Appearance||Flat; small; oval-shaped; brownish-red||Small; thin; dark red or brown; long-legged|
|Size||4 to 5 millimeters (mm) long; 1.5 to 3 mm wide||1.5 to 3.3 mm long|
|Disease-Carrying Potential||Do not spread disease||Can spread disease|
|Bite Impact||No pain at time of biting; later itchiness and rash||Pain during biting; later swelling|
|Identification Clues||Dark spots on bedding—particularly near the feet and lower leg; rust-colored stains on sheets; bite marks on lower legs; sweet, musty odor.||Visible on pets; your body.|
|Hiding Place||Cracks in walls; floors; piping; bed frames; mattress seems. Easily transported.||On pets; on or in upholstery.|
Symptoms of Flea Bites vs. Bed Bug Bites
Bed bug bites and flea bites come with unique symptoms that can help you differentiate what you might be dealing with. It should also be noted that these symptoms are not exclusive to either pest, and you should be examined by a doctor for an accurate diagnosis.
What Are Flea Bites (Symptoms)?
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.
You may also experience secondary infections following scratching, and some develop hypersensitivity to the bites over time.
What Are Bed Bug Bites (Symptoms)?
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.
Some may see no evidence of bed bug bites or experience any type of reaction, while others may develop severe itching, blisters, or hives.
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.
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.
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.
The above treatments may help relieve the symptoms of fleas and bed bugs, but there are specific ways to treat the underlying causes.
If you have bed bugs:
- Put bedding and clothing in a dryer at high temperatures (normal wash cycles will not kill them).
- Heat the room to at least 113 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour minimum to kill bed bugs.
- Use indoor pesticides.
- Contact professional exterminators if necessary.
If you have fleas:
- Regularly vacuum carpets, furnishings, cracks in floors and upholstery, and any other surfaces.
- Vacuum areas where pets sleep.
- Beat rugs and bedding outdoors.
- Kill fleas on pets using specifically formulated flee-killing wash products. Wear gloves.
How to Prevent Flea Bites
- Keep pets clean and check for fleas regularly.
- Use flea prevention products like collars and shampoos for pets.
- Eat garlic or garlicky foods to potentially keep fleas away.
- Infuse water with a citrus fruit like lemon or lime and let it cool overnight. Transfer to a spray bottle and apply to legs and ankles.
- Eucalyptus, cedar wood, and lavender are all essential oils that may prevent fleas from biting. Dab the oil directly onto your skin, or add a few drops to water in a spray bottle and spray.
- Attract fleas to a flea trap using an apple cider vinegar and water solution. Pour the liquid into a glass and set it where the highest population of fleas is suspected.
How to Prevent Bed Bug Bites
- Don’t place luggage on the bed at hotels. Use the rack provided.
- Regularly inspect your bed/bedroom for signs of infestation.
- Eliminate clutter like laundry from around the bed—bed bugs can live there.
- Inspect luggage and clothing whenever returning from a trip or overnight stay.
- Wash all clothing—worn or not—upon returning from a trip or when newly purchased.
- Get rid of infested mattresses, box springs, and bed frames.
- Vacuum cracks and crevices throughout your bedroom or anywhere else bed bugs could be hiding.
- Freeze clothing in bags for at least four days.
- Sprinkle food-grade diatomaceous earth where bed bugs were found to possibly prevent them from returning.
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.
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