A bedbug on its back, revealing the underside of its mouth parts. Photo by David Clement | University of Maryland
Bedbugs have recently reared their insatiable little heads in the Empire State Building, movie theaters, airplanes, apartments, clothing stores, hotel rooms and even Google's Manhattan office. Businesses are now spending thousands of dollars on exterminators and bedbug-sniffing dogs to root out the blood-sucking beasts.
And it's no wonder their bites can be itchy and unsightly, and knowing you have bedbugs can lead a person to drastic measures. Arson charges were recently brought against a Phoenix man who doused his bed with cologne and set it on fire because he wanted to be rid of the pests.
"It can push people over the edge who are already there," said entomologist Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, a bedbug expert at Cornell University in New York. "And most people who have them have trouble sleeping because they don't want to be bitten."
Here are answers to some commonly asked questions about bedbug bites:
What do the bites look like?
The bites are small, red and itchy, Gangloff-Kaufmann told MyHealthNewsDaily, but people vary in reaction to them.
People might see little red bumps as early as the next morning after being bitten, or they may appear or days or weeks later.
"Most people in this country have not been bitten by bedbugs, so everybody doesn't have a history of a reaction like mosquitoes," she said. "A lot of people don't react at all."
"That's a big factor in why [they] spread," Gangloff-Kaufmann said. "There are many people who have [them] and don't know it because they didn't have complications from [them].
Bedbugs usually bite exposed areas of skin, such as the arms, neck, face or feet. This makes bedbug bites different from flea bites, which can appear all over the body, even the parts that are covered by clothes, she said.
The bites also tend to appear in a line or a cluster, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Can I only be bitten while sleeping or lying very still?
You don't have to lie down or be still to get bitten, but because bedbugs usually come out at night and are stealth in their nature, sleeping people are the most likely to be attacked, Gangloff-Kaufmann said. However, bedbugs have been known to bite people while they're up and about or even at work.
Can you tell a bedbug bite from other kinds of insect bites?
It's hard to tell a bedbug bite from bites of other insects because there's really no difference in how they appear, Gangloff-Kaufmann said. However, with a little sleuthing, you might be able to deduce which type of pest struck.
"If it's wintertime, and you stayed in a hotel, and you got bites that look like mosquito bites, those are factors that might lead you to think they might be bedbugs," because mosquitoes aren't around during the winter, she said.
Mosquito and bedbug bites often look alike, she said, but most people have a reaction to mosquito bites.
Can you prevent being bitten if you have bedbugs, or are sleeping somewhere you suspect they might be hiding?
There is no spray or lotion you can apply to ward off bedbug bites if you already have an infestation, Gangloff-Kaufmann said. But you can put up physical barriers if the insects haven't yet infested your mattress or bed.
Make your bed an island by moving it away from the wall and keeping bedding from touching the ground. Then, put a dish with water under each bed leg to prevent the bugs from climbing up into your mattress, she said.
"Make it inaccessible," Gangloff-Kaufmann said. "These steps create a barrier for the bedbugs to get to you."
If I'm bitten, will I get a disease?
Bedbugs are not associated with the transmission of any human disease. However, the bites can leave an open wound on the skin, which can become infected if you scratch, Gangloff-Kaufmann said.
Though there is no known link to bedbug bites, infection by opportunistic bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA, has the potential to spread through any open wounds on the body, she said.
Skin creams containing hydrocortisone or taking an oral antihistamine can help relieve the itching sensation of the bites, according to the Mayo Clinic.