How to Tell if You Have Bed Bug Bites — An Entomologist Explains

Entomologist explains how to identify bed bug bites.

When people — especially New Yorkers — wake up and find inexplicable insect bites on themselves, the first thing that comes to mind is to blame it on bed bugs.

Here at MMPC, we get a lot of inquiries from people who think they have bed bug bites, only to find out later that it’s something else.

Why do people have so much trouble trying to identify bed bug bites?

In reality, bed bug bites can take on a lot of different appearances because different people react differently to being bitten. The range of possible signs and symptoms of bed bug bites is so broad that it’s nearly impossible to diagnose a bed bug problem just from looking at the bites.

In this article, we’ll explain why that’s the case and discuss how you can actually tell if you have bed bugs bites.

Video: How to Tell if You Have Bed Bug Bites

We asked our entomologist, Lou, and here’s how he explains it.

Louis N. Sorkin is a Board Certified Entomologist at Entsult Associates Inc. Before that, he worked at the American Museum of Natural History since 1978.

Where and What Do Bed Bug Bites Look Like?

The most obvious place to find bed bug bites are on the exposed areas of your body. That’s because bed bugs don’t typically like to burrow and push to get under things like clothing or covers.

Examples of commonly exposed areas where you’re more likely to find bed bug bites include your arms, hands, legs, and face.

Sometimes bed bug bites will appear as raised little bumps, as large welts, or large areas of redness. It might feel very itchy, and other times it might not feel itchy. In other cases, many people don’t exhibit any symptoms at all after getting bitten by bed bugs.

As mentioned above, the signs and symptoms of bed bug bites can vary greatly among different people, which makes it difficult to determine if you really have bed bug bites or not.

A cluster of bed bug bites on a persons forearms.
A cluster of bed bug bites on a persons hand.
A cluster of bed bug bites on a persons leg.

How to Tell if You Have Bed Bug Bites

There are many different causes of skin markings and lesions that are commonly mistaken for bed bug bites. For example:

  • Allergies to food
  • Allergies to medicine
  • Bites from mosquitoes, mites, ticks, fleas, and other insects

Instead of relying on the appearance of skin lesions, the best way to tell if you have bed bug bites is to find the intruder — in this case, the bed bugs themselves.

To do that, you can use different monitor systems and traps designed specifically to lure and catch bed bugs. If you have a lint roller at home, use it to collect samples from various surfaces, such as your bedding, mattress, bed frame, and other furniture. This is a great method for catching tiny bed bugs, skin casings, or other signs that are difficult to spot with the naked eye.

Any samples that you collect can then be carefully examined in order to identify the culprit behind your bites. And if you’re still unsure, you can bring samples to your local pest control company to examine as well.

At MMPC, we provide a free pest ID service — you can either send us pictures or bring samples into our office and we’ll help you identify whatever you find.

Why Do People React Differently to Bites?

There are many different chemicals in bed bug saliva, and different people react to these various chemicals in different ways.

Depending on the type of chemical that your immune system is determined to fight and the level of response, bed bug bites may appear as small bumps, large welts, or nothing at all.

  • Some people’s immune systems are sensitive to certain components in bed bug saliva that act as an anesthetic (which prevents us from noticing when they bite).
  • Others might react to proteins that act as an anti-coagulant (which prevents our blood from clotting as they feed).
  • Sometimes our bodies react to the physical stimulus as well, producing a generalized histamine reaction to being poked by the stylet (or “beak”) of the bed bug.

Histamines, which are part of your immune system, are chemicals that are normally stored in mast cells and released in response to physical damage, infections, or allergic reactions. A common result of a histamine reaction is inflammation, redness, swelling, and itchiness.

For all of the different types of reactions, bed bug bites are not considered dangerous — except in rare cases of severe allergic reactions. Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction to look out for include severe itchiness, painful swelling, fever, flu-like symptoms, blisters, and hives.

A bed bug sniffing canine examines a couch for bed bugs.

Need Help With Bed Bugs?

If you woke up thinking you might have bed bug bites, or need help identifying possible bed bug samples, MMPC is here to help. With over 25+ years of experience, we are NYC’s top local experts when it comes to canine bed bug inspections and reliable, eco-friendly bed bug treatments.

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