Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are small, parasitic insects that come out at night to feed on human blood. Chances are you'll never spot the sneaky bugs crawling around on your body, but you'll likely notice the bites they leave behind on your skin.

About Bed Bug Bites

Bed bugs can bite any anywhere on the body that they can get to, including your face, neck and other sensitive places. They pierce the skin with their beak-like mouth parts and suck out blood. The bites are painless when they occur, because the pests inject the skin with a substance containing anesthetic properties. As a result, you might not notice the bites for several hours to two weeks. Some individuals never experience any reaction at all.

As they eat, the pests also secrete a substance in their saliva that prevents the blood from clotting. It is this substance that triggers a topical reaction, but the symptoms vary from person to person. Most people suffer from a few common symptoms, but highly sensitive people can experience serious reactions.

Common Symptoms

Bed bug bites most commonly occur on the skin exposed while you sleep. This typically includes:

  • face
  • neck
  • shoulders
  • arms
  • hands
  • legs

Bed bug bites frequently look like the bites of other insect pests--particularly flea, spider or mosquito bites. However, unlike those other pests, bed bugs often leave three to five bites clustered together in a zigzag pattern or rough line.

Bed bug bites typically appear as small, raised or flat areas. These areas might look red with a darker red dot in the center. The bites frequently itch and might become inflamed.

The bites typically go away on their own in seven to 14 days. Keep the bites clean and infection-free by refraining from scratching and frequently washing the affected area with soap and water. You can purchase and use over-the-counter oral antihistamines and hydrocortisone skin creams to ease the discomfort while your skin heals.

Serious Symptoms

Some individuals experience severe and even potentially life-threatening reactions to bed bug bites. See your doctor for immediate medical treatment if you or a loved one experiences one or more of these serious symptoms:

  • trouble breathing
  • swollen tongue
  • irregular or pounding heartbeat
  • large blisters
  • skin infections
  • fever
  • nausea
  • anemia

Secondary skin infections typically occur when an individual keeps scratching the bites. Infected bed bug bites can swell up, bleed or ooze pus. Very young and very old people are more at risk for secondary infections, as are individuals with impaired immune systems.

Doctors typically prescribe antihistamines, corticosteroids, epinephrine and antibiotic medications to help clear up itchiness, allergic reactions and infections.

Why Bed Bugs Bite

Bed bugs bite because they feed solely on blood. A bed bug requires at least one blood meal before it can develop to the next life stage. Adult female bed bugs also need a blood meal before they can produce eggs. Both sexes need to feed at least once every two weeks in order to mate.

A Few Considerations

No matter your symptoms, there's nothing unique to bed bug bites that doctors can use to make a positive diagnosis. If you suspect you've been bitten, search your sleeping area for other signs of bed bugs. If you find evidence of an infestation, start treatment right away. Eliminating the pests is the only way you can stop the bed bugs from biting you.