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  • Writer's pictureNoel McCarthy

How To Tell Bed Bug Bites from Flea Bites

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

Before we get into the main part of this blog, I just want to clarify something about bug-related terminology and usage. Bees, wasps, and hornets sting; they do not bite! Sand flies bite, bed bugs bite, and so do mosquitos, fire ants, fleas, lice, ticks, and spiders. And however trivial a distinction this might seem, it’s not. It does make a difference. Why?

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Bed Bug Bites and Flea Bites?

Because insect bites are usually the first sign that we have uninvited ‘guests’ in our homes (or offices or stores), and it’s important that we know what is biting us so that we can respond appropriately.

While there are discernible differences between flea bites and bed bug bites, many people can’t tell the difference. This, I suspect, has a lot to do with the fact that compared to decades ago we see fewer of either kind of bite. We’ll discuss the optics later, but if you are bitten by one of these pests, your first clue will be pain, or the lack, thereof.

The fact is that if you suffer a flea bite you’ll know instantly. It hurts! A bed bug bite, on the other hand, won’t begin to hurt for a number of hours. Of course, both bugs are parasites, depending on an external host for sustenance, but bed bugs bites generally appear on a victim’s upper body, neck, arms, and shoulders. Flea bites, by contrast, are usually found on the feet, ankles, and knees. Still, they can also appear on a person’s waist, armpits, and elbows.

Bed Bug Bites

bed bug bites

As I just pointed out, if you’re bitten by a bed bug it will take some time before you feel anything. But wait 24 hours or so and you’ll start seeing red welts or swelling, and the bite will invariably itch- a lot! And don’t think you’re immune just because your house (or office) is clean and tidy. In one of our blogs a couple of years ago we noted that:

“[A] study published last year by The Royal Society, found that homes in wealthier

areas harbor more bugs, flies, spiders, beetles and ants, as well as dust mites and

book lice. It turns out that because richer neighbourhoods are more biologically

diverse ̶ in birds, bats and other creatures ̶ and possess a greater number and

variety of plants in gardens and parks, they attract many more ‘guests.’”

It should come as no surprise then that more people than ever are reporting cases of bed bug infestation. Either them personally, or someone they know.

Even if you haven’t tracked down the pesky culprits themselves, you can quickly tell if the lesions you’ve acquired are from bed bugs. Four things to look for are:

  1. Bites on the upper body, neck, arms, and shoulders.

  2. A burning feeling before those red welts or swellings appear.

  3. Very itchy welts that appear some 24 to 48 hours after the bite.

  4. Bites that look like raised, flat red bumps, usually in rows of three.

Should those bites, which are usually located on the shoulders, arms, legs, back and face, start to swell or become blister-like in appearance, you should consult your doctor immediately, since these could be signs of infection.

Flea Bites

Flea bites on the torso

Flea bites, as we said, are generally located on the lower parts of the body: the ankles and lower legs, as well as in the folds of skin behind the knee or in the bend of the elbow. They look more like mosquito bites than bug bites: they tend to be pink, with a dark red center, and they’ll start to swell within about an hour of the original bite.

So, how can you tell whether these bites come from a bed bug or a flea?

Flea bites tend to:

  1. Materialize as small, red, itchy bumps.

  2. Possess a red halo at the center of the bite.

  3. Arrange themselves haphazardly, largely because these pests jump from feeding spot to feeding spot.

  4. Produce inflammation.

  5. Are unbelievably itchy.

Instances of flea-borne diseases are fortunately pretty rare in the US, although a flea bite can technically spread a number of dangerous diseases, such as murine typhus, Tularemia, and Bubonic plague!

Tracking Down Bed Bugs

Whether you call a Pest Management Professional (PMP) to tackle what may be a bed bug infestation, or decide to wrestle with these beasties on your own, it’s vital that you track them down to their source. While fleas generally make their way into your home via your pets (dog or cat), it makes no difference to these parasites- bed bugs are the hitchhikers par excellence of the bug world. In fact, there’s a very good chance that you (or a member of your family) brought them into the house, although they have been known to enter via packages, shopping bags, backpacks and luggage, even electronic devices!

And they’re really hard to find. As we’ve pointed out elsewhere:

“One of the biggest problems is that bed bugs can hide virtually anywhere:

in the seams of chairs and couches, between cushions and in the folds of

curtains; in household appliances, kitchen utensils, bookcases, even pictures

and wall hangings. They’ve even been found in electrical sockets and laptop


However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

“It is important to look for other clues when determining if bed bugs have

infested an area. These signs include:

  • The bed bugs’ exoskeletons after molting

  • Bed bugs in the fold of mattresses and sheets

  • Rusty–colored blood spots due to their blood-filled fecal material that they excrete on the mattress furniture

  • A sweet musty odor.”

Chasing Down Fleas

If you thought that tracking down bed bugs was hard, try chasing down fleas. It’s a much tougher proposition. You’ll need a lot of patience, and a pair of white socks! I’ll explain the latter item shortly.

Being parasites, fleas depend on warm-blooded animals for sustenance (i.e. blood), which means that they can be found on humans, domestic animals, and rodents.

However, when they are not doing their ‘vampire thing’ ̶ as my kids used to call it- they can usually be found in shared rooms and where pets bed down. Look for them, and their eggs, in soft furnishings such as carpets, pet bedding, clothes and upholstered furniture. In fact, some 95% of flea eggs, larvae and pupae live in your surroundings, not on your pets.

How else can you chase them down? Well, apart from the flea bites you might have suffered, and finding flea eggs - which, by the way, are very small, white and oval-shaped- here are two other ways to find them:

  1. Get a pair of white cotton socks and walk through your house, for a good 10 minutes or so. Any fleas in your locale will automatically jump up and hitch a ride. Then remove the socks off and check them for fleas.

  2. Check your home for “flea dirt”, i.e. flea droppings, which look like bits of dirt. Again, you’ll likely find flea dirt on the floor of your home, or in rugs and carpets. And if you wipe the flea dirt with a damp paper towel, it will leave behind reddish marks.

Getting Rid of Fleas and Bed Bugs

If you’re dealing with a bed bug or flea infestation, we at Sterifab® usually recommend bringing in a reliable professional pest management company. Not only are PMPs highly trained in the minutia of bed bug and flea control, but they’ll also be able to diagnose problems that we non-pros wouldn’t see. Plus, these professionals will quickly take control of the situation and devise the best, most efficient solution.

If, on the other hand, you decide to go it alone, can provide guidance in the shape of the many blogs we’ve dedicated to flea and bed bug eradication.

Want to try out Sterifab on your bed bug or flea problem?

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