What’s the Difference Between Flea Bites and Bedbug Bites?

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on July 5, 2016Written by Natalie Silver on July 5, 2016

Are there any similarities?

If you notice a group of small dots on your skin, they could be either bedbug bites or flea bites. It can be difficult to tell the difference between them. Flea bites are usually found on the lower half of your body or in warm, moist areas like the bends of elbows and knees. Bedbug bites are often on the upper half of your body, around the face, neck, and arms.

Keep reading to learn about the symptoms, risk factors, and treatments of each type of bite.

Flea bites 101

Fleas are tiny, blood-sucking insects. Five percent of the flea population lives on pets, which is generally how humans get flea bites. Fleas can’t fly, but they can jump up to 18 centimeters. As soon as they latch on to a host, they begin biting.

Symptoms

Common symptoms of flea bites include small red marks on your skin and intense itching. The bites are sometimes grouped together in threes.

Flea bites generally occur on or near the:

  • feet and lower legs
  • waist
  • ankles
  • armpits
  • elbows and knees (in the bend)
  • other skin folds

Risk factors

If you’re allergic to fleas, you may develop hives or a rash. The affected area may also swell and blister. If a blister appears and breaks, it may lead to an infection. If you scratch the affected area and break open the skin, you may also get a secondary infection from the bites.

Fleas can infest your skin. For example, burrowing fleas can cause an infestation called tungiasis. It almost always occurs around the feet and toes. This tropical or subtropical flea can dig under your skin to feed. The flea will die after two weeks, but it often causes a complicated skin infection afterward.

How to treat flea bites

First-line treatment for flea bites includes washing the bites with soap and water and, if needed, applying a topical anti-itch cream. A lukewarm bath with oatmeal can also relieve itchiness. You should avoid showering or bathing with hot water, which can make itching more severe.

If you suspect that you’re allergic, take an antihistamine to reduce your chances of an allergic reaction.

See your doctor if you suspect you may have an infection or if the bites don’t clear up after a few weeks. If your bites become infected, your doctor can prescribe antibiotics or other medication.

You can reduce the chances of fleas in your home by:

  • keeping your floors and furniture clean by vacuuming
  • cleaning your carpet with steam
  • mowing your lawn if your pets spend time outdoors
  • using a pest control service
  • washing your pet with soap and water
  • examining your pets for fleas
  • putting a flea collar on your pet or treating your pet with a monthly medication

Bedbug bites 101

Like fleas, bedbugs also survive on blood. They are small, reddish brown, and oval shaped. You may not see them during the day because they hide in dark places. They tend to bite people when they’re sleeping. This is because they’re attracted to your body heat and the carbon dioxide produced when you exhale.

Bedbugs like to hide in:

  • mattresses
  • bed frames
  • box springs
  • carpets

Bedbugs are often found in facilities with heavy use, such as hotels and hospitals. They can also be found in homes and apartments.

Symptoms

Bedbugs tend to bite on the upper half of the body, including the:

  • face
  • neck
  • arms
  • hands

Bedbug bites are small and have a dark red spot in the middle of a raised area of the skin. They may appear in a cluster or in a line, and they often get worse if you scratch them.

Risk factors

Some people may have a serious reaction to bedbug bites. The affected area may swell or become irritated, resulting in a blister. You may even develop hives or a more severe rash.

A 2012 study in Clinical Microbiology Reviews suggests that although 40 pathogens have been found in bedbugs, they don’t appear to cause or transmit any diseases.

How to treat bedbug bites

Bedbug bites usually go away after a week or two. You should contact your doctor if:

  • the bites don’t go away after a few weeks
  • you develop a secondary infection from scratching the bites
  • you experience signs of an allergic reaction, such as hives

You can use a topical steroid to treat bedbug bites on the skin. If you have an allergic reaction, it may be necessary to take oral antihistamines or steroids. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic in the case of an infection.

If you believe the bedbug bites occurred in your home, you need to treat your living space. To remove bedbugs, you should:

  • Vacuum and clean your floors and furniture.
  • Launder your bed linens and other upholstery. Use a hot washer and dryer to kill the bugs.
  • Take things out of your room and set them in below-freezing temperatures for several days.
  • Hire a pest control service to treat your living space.
  • Remove infested items from your home permanently.

What you can do now

If you have flea bites or bedbug bites, there are a few things you can do now:

  • Monitor your bites for signs of infection or allergic reaction.
  • Use a topical anti-itch cream to relieve inflammation and irritation.
  • Call your doctor if your symptoms continue or get worse after a few weeks.
  • Take steps to remove the fleas or bedbugs from your living space.

Keep reading: Flea infestations »

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