The right way to determine and deal with mattress bug bites

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  • To treat bed bug bites, be careful not to scratch them and use anti-itch cream, oral antihistamines, or a cold compress instead to soothe your skin.
  • You also need to take steps to get rid of the bed bugs because if you have an infestation, they will keep biting you.
  • Here’s how to identify bed bug bites and get proper treatment.
  • This article has been medically reviewed by Mona Gohara, MD, a dermatologist at Yale School of Medicine.
  • This story is part of Insider’s Complete Guide to Bug Bites.

Bed bug bites are itchy, annoying and just plain creepy. Although the bites are generally harmless, getting rid of bed bugs is important or they will keep biting you.

In the meantime, there are some home treatments that you can use to relieve the itchiness from your bed bug bites. If these don’t work, you should ask your doctor for stronger, prescription drugs.

This is how you can identify bed bug bites and treat them effectively.

What do bed bug bites look like?

Bed bug bites

Bed bug bites can be grouped in a line or zigzag pattern.


Joel Carillet / Getty Images

Bed bug bites appear as small red spots on light skin and can appear as small dark spots on darker skin, says Dr. Sharleen St. Surin-Lord, Medical Director at the Visage Dermatology and Aesthetics Center in Washington, DC

Usually they appear in groups of 3 to 5 bites in a zigzag pattern that reflects where the bug has moved on your body. Although bed bugs can bite anywhere, the bites are usually focused on the abdomen and arms, says St. Surin Lord.

Bed bug bites are usually slightly smaller than mosquito bites, although they can be difficult to tell apart from flea bites.

“The difference is that you can usually see the fleas or mosquitoes jumping around after they bit you,” says St. Surin Lord. “Bed bugs are a bit more secret.”

This comparison chart can help you diagnose your type of insect bite:

Bug Bite Comparison Chart


Yuqing Liu / Insider

How to treat bed bug bites

The main symptoms of bed bug bites are typically redness and itching.

You can treat these symptoms by first washing the bite site with soapy water to remove any dirt or debris. Then you can try these home remedies:

  • Anti itch cream. These over-the-counter medications include steroid ointments like cortisone or antihistamine creams like Benadryl. Both reduce itching and swelling, and when applied topically, can relieve bed bug bites.
  • Oral antihistamine. An over-the-counter oral antihistamine tablet like Benadryl will counteract your body’s production of histamine, causing itchy bites. However, these oral antihistamines can cause drowsiness. It is best to take Benadryl right before bed to relieve itching and help you sleep.
  • Cold compress. A cold compress can provide temporary relief from itching. Apply a cold compress or ice pack wrapped in a towel for no more than 20 minutes and wait at least an hour before reapplying.

The itching from bed bug bites can last for up to two weeks, says St. Surin Lord. This is often prolonged if the infestation has not been resolved and the person continues to get new bites.

When to see a doctor

If you are dealing with severe itching despite the above remedies, you can contact your doctor for a stronger prescription anti-itch cream.

In some cases, St. Surin Lord prescribes oral steroids to people with severe itching caused by bed bug bites. The oral steroids can reduce inflammation and itching in people who do not get relief from topical creams. They can also help prevent further health complications from the overwhelming itchiness.

“Bed bugs become dangerous when a large part of the body is affected, causing severe itching, scratching, and open, wounded, bleeding skin,” says St. Surin Lord. “This now creates a portal for bacteria and skin infections.”

Though rare, if you develop a fever alongside your bite you should see your doctor as it could indicate an underlying infection, says St. Surin Lord.

The final result

Although bed bug bites are generally harmless, they can be very uncomfortable. If you don’t get relief from home treatments, see your doctor.

In addition, treating the infestation and getting rid of the bed bugs is important – they will likely bite people until they are professionally eradicated.

“No matter what you choose, you have to get the bed bugs out of your home,” says St. Surin Lord. “If you have been to a hotel and feel like you were bitten on your bed and diagnosed with bed bugs, this is the hotel you should contact for room treatment.”