What are Bed Bugs and What Do the Bites Look Like?

Bed bug bites might look like a rash

Bedbugs on a bed sheet
Roger Eritja/Getty Images

Bed bugs resurged worldwide in the late 1990s. Once limited to hotel and motel rooms, these blood-sucking insects (both the Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus) became a problem in many homes, hotels, and even movie theaters.

These recent infestations are probably due to insecticide resistance and increased international travel, according to a study published in Clinical Microbiology Review.

Fortunately, bed bugs aren't known to spread contagious diseases. However, these blood-sucking insects can cause anemia if you get too many and may trigger asthma attacks.

What Do Bed Bug Bites Look Like?

With an appearance like many other common bites, bed bug bites often appear as small itchy raised red areas on exposed skin - usually a few days after the actual bite. Some children and adults don't develop a reaction to the bites at all, even after repeated exposure.

On the skin, the bites can appear as:

  • A rash
  • A line of bites
  • A cluster of bites

Who is at Risk for Bed Bugs?

There is not a direct link between poor sanitation and bed bug infestations. A pristinely clean living space is as vulnerable as a messy one. Usually, sleeping in a place where multiple people have slept increases your risk. You might especially suspect bed bugs if you or your child:

  • Traveled recently
  • Slept on a used mattress or sat on a used piece of furniture
  • Lives in an apartment building, where bed bugs could have infested another apartment and have moved into yours too
  • Lives in or recently spent time in a college dorm room
  • Are getting new unexplained bites each night, and for example, you don't have a dog with fleas
  • Actually see bed bugs hiding in the seams or crevices of your child's mattress or box spring, along the edge of carpeting, behind picture frames, and hiding inside recesses of furniture 

    Treatments for Bed Bugs

    A proper diagnosis is the important first step to successful treatment. Unfortunately, clinicians commonly misdiagnose bed bug bites as:

    Once correctly identified, there are no bed bug specific treatments for people, but you must eliminate these pests from your home. Your clinician might prescribe:

    • Topical steroids to control inflammation
    • Antihistamines to relieve itching
    • Antibiotics or a topical antiseptic lotion for bacterial infections
    • Non-steroidal topical anti-itch medications, such as calamine lotion
    • Over-the-counter topical steroid creams, including 0.5% and 1% hydrocortisone cream
    • Oral antihistamines, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine hydrochloride) or Atarax (hydroxyzine), a prescription strength antihistamine

    Getting Rid of Bed Bugs

    Although treating bed bug bits isn't difficult, actually getting rid of the bed bugs is another story. Many people report that they have to throw away mattresses and other household items. A professional exterminator can help.

    In order to minimize your risk, you can:

    • Buy new furniture instead of used
    • Detect infestations early with monitoring devices
    • Minimize the cracks and crevices in sleeping areas
    • Buy metal and plastic furniture instead of wooden products
    • Put your mattresses inside a bug-proof cover


    Bed Bugs. Biology and Management. Harvard School of Public Health.

    Doggett, et al. Clinical Microbiology Review: Bed Bugs - Clinical Relevance and Control Options (2012).

    Richard Pollack, Ph.D. and Gary Alpert, Ph.D. Bed Bugs.

    Michael F. Potter. Extension Entomologist. University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.