When Bed Bugs Bite (Symptoms and Prevention Tips)

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Updated on August 3, 2022

It’s never pleasant to wake up in the morning to discover red, itchy spots on your body. Even worse, after some examination to find out what bit you, you discover it was bed bugs.

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These nasty little critters strike quietly, and often the only signs you’ve been exposed to one is the trail of red marks or little brownish-red dots on the sheets.

It’s important to know your enemy (especially when you’re sleeping with them), and entire novel-length books could be written about bed bugs. Obviously, you will need to get rid of them, but in the meantime, what about the bites themselves?

How do you treat the bites you have, and how do you prevent more before waiting on an exterminator or gathering what you need to tackle them yourself?

Related: 9 Different Types of Bug Bites

Bed Bug Bites 101

It’s important to understand the process of getting bitten, from the bed bug finding you to the bite itself. You might be surprised to find much of what you thought you knew is actually not true.

Why Bed Bugs Bite

First off, let’s look at why bed bugs bite in the first place. Both species of bed bugs have evolved to use blood (especially human) as their sole food. This is because blood is chock full of nutrients. In fact, one meal can keep a bed bug alive for up to 70 days!

This process of drinking blood is known as hematophagia and in species such as bed bugs, blood is actually not the primary food source. Many other critters drink blood only for egg production, such as no-see-ums  and mosquitoes.

Where Do Bed Bugs Bite Most?

bed bug bites on neck

The answer to this can vary from one victim to another, as bed bugs will only bite where the skin is exposed. This means face, neck, hands, and feet are the most common locations, followed by arms, legs, and midriff.

They’re least likely to bite in areas of dense hair, as it can be difficult for them to navigate between the hairs.

Related: How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs

Can Bed Bugs Bite Through Clothes?

People sometimes mistakenly believe that a bed bug bit them through their pajamas. In reality, bed bugs hate clothes since their proboscis is too short to pierce skin through fabric.

This myth tends to pop up because the individual misidentified a bite’s source, or their clothing rode up while they slept. It’s also possible (but pretty rare) for a bed bug to crawl into your clothing if it’s loose enough to be mistaken for bedding.

The Bite Process

When a bed bug attacks, it finds a good spot (usually on a sleeping individual) and pierces the skin with its proboscis. Their saliva contains anticoagulants, as well as a mild anesthetic that helps prevent the victim from knowing it’s being fed on.

When the bed bug has its fill, it scampers back to its hiding place.

Why Do Bed Bugs Bite In a Straight Line?

why bed bugs bite

This is actually something of a myth, as bed bugs only feed once per night. Left undisturbed, they will make their entire meal from a single wound.

However, if the victim shifts in their sleep or the bug is otherwise dislodged, it will create a new incision to continue its meal. This often takes on the appearance of being intentionally in a line.

Why Aren’t Some People Bitten?

The truth of the matter is, your partner may actually be getting asymptomatic bites. But there are some other factors that can make you more appealing than the person sleeping next to you.

#1 – Aesthetics

While it’s unclear if color really plays a role in bite frequency, it is a fact that bed bugs tend to prefer certain colors. Males are most strongly attracted to red and black, while females seem to prefer purple hues and black.

Black makes sense, as it reminds them of hiding spots, but there’s no known reason for the other colors. Some theorize this may mean your pajamas or any bedtime accessories play some small role in who gets bitten if the bed bug emerges between two people.

#2 – Blood Type

Unlike some hematophages, bed bugs don’t have a universal preference to blood type. However, an individual bed bug may develop a preference for the blood type they’re most used to.

Thus, you might be high on the menu simply because the bugs snacked on you first.

#3 – Proximity

A bed bug will attack the food source closest to where it likes to hide. Thus, an easy way to get back at your partner for not being munched on is to simply swap sides of the bed.

#4 – Turn-Offs

Even bugs have an opinion of beauty. In the case of feeding, your partner may have used a product containing essential oils or some other form of repellent, possibly without even intending it.

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This is one of those cases where your spouse’s garlic breath may actually be fending off more than a bedtime kiss.

The Effects of Bed Bug Bites

bed bug bites on back

Now that you’ve been bitten, there’s a little issue of symptomatology. Not everyone is affected the same way, and this often leads people to get confused about what actually bit them (or if they were bitten at all).

How Long Does It Take For Bite Symptoms?

This varies greatly from one person to the next, simply because the symptoms are almost always due to an allergic reaction.

The body releases histamines to try and combat the invading substance (in this case bed bug saliva). This can lead to itching, redness, and/or swelling at the wound site, usually appearing anywhere from a few minutes to a few days after the attack.

The severity of symptoms are often very mild, but in extreme allergic reactions, the victim may experience blisters, lethargy, fever, infections, or even minor necrosis at the wound site (which will heal over).

As it’s possible to not notice a bite for hours or days, it’s possible your bug bite happened away from home if nobody else has shown symptoms. You should perform a bed bug inspection if this is the case, to be sure you didn’t bring any of the little vampires home.

Bed Bug Bites vs Hives

It’s not uncommon for people to confuse the reaction from bed bug bites with hives, another form of allergic reaction. But the two are usually pretty easy to tell apart.

Bed bug bite reactions will tend to be small (around the diameter of a pencil eraser), round, and red. They usually won’t be isolated to one person and usually show up on exposed skin.

Meanwhile, hives vary widely in size, shape, and color. They’ll only affect a single person and will appear all over the body regardless of coverage.

Do Bed Bug Bites Scar?

Again, this depends largely on the individual. The bites themselves won’t leave a scar, but excessive scratching may damage the tissue enough to scar over. Infections can also cause some scarring, if severe enough.

Alleviating Symptoms

There are a number of things you can do to help reduce a reaction to bed bug bites.

Cooling or antihistamine lotions and sprays can help. When recovering from a particularly bad infestation, you may also wish to see if your insurance covers a cortisone shot, which will work wonders but can be pricey.

You may also choose to stick with a common OTC oral solution, such as Benadryl.

What About Diseases?

The good news is, bed bugs aren’t known vectors of disease for humans. However, any break in the skin can lead to an infection, so there’s always a possibility the bite will open the door (literally) for bacteria or virii to waltz right in.

Read Also: 22 Frequently Asked Questions About Bed Bugs

Protecting Yourself From Bed Bug Bites

prevent bed bug bites

In the event you’ve identified there are bed bugs in your room (and not a look-alike critter), there are a few things you can do to reduce the risk of being bitten. While these won’t stop the bugs, they can be a good stop-gap until you can perform a bedroom clear-out.

Read Also: Does Rubbing Alcohol Kill Bed Bugs?

Use Repellents

As mentioned, garlic and many essential oils can keep bed bugs at bay. There’s no evidence that showering before bed has a significant impact on whether you’ll get bitten, but using herbal products can often have a similar effect to spraying down with Off! before bed.

Using a product like No Bite Me soap before bedtime may also help your chances of a bed bug bite-free night.

Warm the Bed

This won’t necessarily work against bed bugs hiding in the bedframe, but you can run a steam cleaner or hot iron to go over the sheets and mattress before bed.

It can help kill some bacteria, give you a nice, toasty place to lay down, and may kill a few bed bugs along the way. Just be sure to run your pillows and other linens through a hot dryer while you’re at it.

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Sleep in a Different Room

Men often complain about being left in the dog house, but when faced with bed bugs, your couch may not seem such a bad idea.

Be sure to run any clothing from the bedroom through a hot dryer so there’s less chance of bringing your little friends to the campout.


1 thought on “When Bed Bugs Bite (Symptoms and Prevention Tips)”

  1. Leaving infested rooms unoccupied is one of the greatest causes of bed bugs spreading. They will hunt you down in other rooms or infest other occupied rooms. This is one reason (there are other causes too) that an infestation can spread through apartment blocks.


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