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Bed Bug Bites: Symptoms, Facts & Natural Treatments

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Bed bug bites - Dr. Axe
Over 99 percent of all professional pest control companies report treating homes or buildings infested with bed bugs within the past year, which makes bed bug bites extremely common annoyances. (1) And they’re aren’t going away anytime soon, it appears.

Bed bugs are found in every state in the U.S., just about every country, and in new and old homes alike. The Pest World Organization reports that bed bug occurrences are up dramatically from about 10–15 years ago, and experts around the world feel that these bugs have recently “undergone a worldwide resurgence” for reasons that aren’t totally understood. (2) Pest control surveys show that the top three places where bed bugs are found include apartments/condominiums, single-family homes and hotels/motels — making just about anyone susceptible to bed bug bites without a moment’s notice.

Thankfully, there are ways to get rid of bed bugs, along with ways to treat bed bug bites, naturally and safely, and it starts with understanding bed bugs and knowing how to identify bed bug bites.


What Are Bed Bugs?

Bed bugs, which can live on many different surfaces in your home aside from mattresses, and are considered blood-feeding insects that bite humans and other animals to survive. There are many different species of bed bugs found globally, but two of the leading types include Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus.

Although their name makes it sound like they only live inside of beds or mattresses, bed bugs can survive in other spaces too, including couches or sofas, luggage, sheets, inside dressers, or in rugs/carpets. Other than homes or motels, places where it’s common to find bed bugs include any space where people live or work in tight quarters, especially if the space is cluttered and not cleaned often — such as nursing homes, college dorms, corporate offices, schools, day care centers and hospitals.

The most common sign or symptom of bed bug bites is a type of dermatological reaction that causes an itchy, bumpy rash. A small percentage of people develop somewhat serious reactions to bed bugs beyond just itchy skin rashes, including anemic symptoms or various symptoms of allergies, but for the majority bed bugs are mostly just a nuance, inconvenient and downright gross to encounter. (3) Even though there isn’t evidence that bed bugs carry dangerous human pathogens,  you still definitely want to avoid them at all costs due to the rash they can cause along with “significant psychological distress.”

If you do suspect you’ve been bitten, you’re probably wondering how you can get rid of bed bugs in your home and prevent them from returning without the use of harsh chemicals. Prevention of bed bugs and treatment for bed bug bites include using natural bug-repellent solutions in your home, such as essential oils, along with treating skin rashes with natural skin care ingredients.


Signs of Symptoms of Bed Bug Bites

People react to bed bugs differently depending on their tolerance to bites and strength of their immune systems. Rashes caused from bed bug bites can start out as small macular spots and later progress into larger, intensely itchy, dry patches that might “erupt” as they heal. The good news is that bed bugs themselves are usually not very dangerous, since they tend not to carry harmful bacteria that can cause any lasting infections or viruses in humans. Research shows that some bed bugs carry up to 40 different species of microbes/bacteria, but most (if not all) are harmless.

The most common symptoms of bed bug bites include:

  • itching on the skin, sometimes which might become intense
  • small red bumps, which tend to occur in lines or zigzags usually on the legs or arms — bed bug bites are normally flat or slightly raised in some areas and don’t have a red ring around the center, which can occur with flea bites (4)
  • skin eruptions that might ooze puss before healing
  • dryness and pigment changes in the skin when the bites heal

There is also a strong psychological toll associated with bed bugs, since they can cause anxiety, shame and trouble sleeping for many people. (5)

Keep in mind that not everyone reacts to bed bug bites in the same way. Some people experience little to no symptoms from bites and therefore have no idea that they’ve even been bitten. Others respond more drastically and can suffer from allergic reactions, pain and fever-like symptoms.

For people with average or strong immune systems, the majority of bed bug species are nonvenomous and relatively harmless. Bed bugs are roughly equivalent to head lice or common mosquito bites, since they cause skin reactions but usually not more. Boosting your immune system can help to reduce allergy/histamine reactions to bug bites.

The reason bed bugs can trigger skin rashes is because their saliva can carry substances that irritate human skin. Bed bug bites usually aren’t felt and don’t hurt while they’re happening because the bugs can first inject a numbing agent into the skin that makes their fangs essentially undetectable.

Although most bites cause minor reactions, including small, red bumps, some people develop more intense hive-like rashes, swelling and painful skin lesions. The most severe reactions occur in people who tend to be allergic to many different types of common bug bites, including mosquitoes or fleas.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that if you have a history of strong allergic reactions to bug bites or notice signs of an infection caused from any bites, it’s best to see a doctor. (6) Early treatment can help control any skin inflammation from worsening and keep the allergic reaction from causing more serious complications.

All about bed bug bites - Dr. Axe

Where Do Bed Bugs Come From?

Bed bugs are considered by many experts to be one of the most challenging pests to treat, considering they’re both resilient insects and also capable of reproducing quickly. They can survive in many different climates, go very long periods of time without eating, and are small enough to live in tiny places and go easily go undetected. (7)

There are many myths surrounding bed bugs — including that they only bite at night, are only found in the summer and can jump across entire rooms. Bed bugs don’t just wait until you’re sleeping to start biting; they’re actually capable of biting any time of day. Although it’s a common misconception that bed bugs fly and can move quickly from room to room, they don’t actually have wings, and they aren’t capable of jumping/hopping far either. Instead, they crawl from surface to surface, usually on the search for more food.

Bed bugs aren’t seasonal pests for the most part, like mosquitoes or ants, for example, and can take up residence in your home or other areas at any point in the year. Although not a seasonal insect that tends to thrive or die off at certain points in the year, surveys show that bed bugs are reported in higher numbers during the summer months. The reason experts believe this is true is because people tend to do more traveling during the summer and stay in more hotels/motels. Public transportation use can also increase in the summer months, which raises the risk for bed bugs being transmitted from location to location.


Tips for Identifying Bed Bugs

  • Because bed bug bites can look similar to other bug bites, the best way to identify/differentiate them is to locate the actual bugs in your home or look for signs that they tend to leave behind. (8)
  • Thoroughly look through your bed, especially your mattress under the lining, for dark-looking, flat, wingless insects or their light-colored eggs.
  • Be sure to remove all bedding and check it carefully for signs of bug excrement. Bug “droppings” are very small but usually look like dark specks that might be spread throughout your sheets or mattress.
  • Also remove the dust cover over the bottom of your box spring and examine the seams in the wood framing of your bed/headboard. Peel back any fabric where the mattress might be stapled to the wood frame of your bed to check if bugs are hiding out in any tight spaces.
  • Take note of any off-putting smells, since bed bugs give off pheromones similar to stink bugs that leave behind a musty odor. (9)

What do bed bugs look like?

  • Full-size bed bugs are usually very small, between four to five millimeters long, but are still capable of being spotted by the naked eye. Although there are many different species of bed bugs, the most common types are flat and a red-brown color. (10)
  • The majority are about the size of an appleseed. Their eggs, on the other hand, are even smaller, only about one millimeter wide, which is roughly the size of about two grains of salt, and usually very hard to spot.

Facts About Bed Bugs

  • There are over 92 different species of bed bugs that have been discovered worldwide. (11)
  • Roughly one out of five Americans has had a bed bug infestation in his or her home or knows someone who has.
  • Survey results show that people who encounter bed bugs most often tend to be younger, live in urban areas and rent their homes.
  • Risk factors for bed bug infestation include living in areas with a larger population size, apartment living, increased mobility and traveling, having a cluttered home, and practicing poor hygiene, which is conducive to the rapid spread and breeding of bed bugs.
  • Bed bugs on average live for about 10 months, but they can live up to 18 months in some instances even without feeding.
  • Capable of reproducing rapidly, bed bugs can lay up to 500 eggs in their lifetimes. On average, they tend to lay about five eggs per day, and it takes about five weeks before the new eggs mature and start to reproduce themselves.
  • Bed bugs go to great lengths to seek out food, sometimes traveling up to 100 feet across different surfaces.
  • Bed bugs can ingest up to seven times their own bodyweight in human blood!
  • Americans report being generally concerned about bed bugs when traveling or buying a new home. Surveys show that 27 percent have inspected clothing after traveling, 25 percent have checked a hotel room for bed bugs, 17 percent inspect their luggage in fear of bed bugs and 12 percent have canceled travel plans because of concerns about bed bugs.

Conventional Treatment for Bed Bugs

Conventional treatment for bed bug bites usually includes:

  • Watching and waiting. It’s not necessary to treat most minor rashes, since they tend to go away on their own within several weeks. It’s usually recommended that you wait to see if the rash heals before taking any medications to clear it.
  • Corticosteroid drugs. Used in severe cases to control inflammation and itchiness of the skin.
  • Antihistamines. These help lower allergic reactions in severe cases and are normally taken by mouth or applied to the skin in ointment form.
  • Anesthetics. These are usually applied to affected areas to help dull pain and itching.

The Department of Medical Entomology at Westmead Hospital in Australia warns: “The misuse of chemicals and other technologies for controlling bed bugs has the potential to have a deleterious impact on human health.”

Insecticides, prescription drugs and chemical household cleaners can be toxic and sometimes cause reactions like worsened skin problems, allergic responses and more. Whenever possible, it’s best to prevent bed bugs come infesting your home in the first place. When a rash occurs, you can work on easing itching naturally and thoroughly cleaning your home to prevent another infestation.

How to diagnose and treat bed bug bites - Dr. Axe

How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs

1. Inspect Your Home and Clean Up Clutter

Although it’s a myth that bed bugs only live in old or dirty homes, it’s true that the more cluttered a space is the likelier they are to survive and continue reproducing. Clearing away clutter from your home gives them less opportunity to find spaces and surfaces to hide.

If you suspect you’ve been bitten, try to locate the bugs in your home by investigating your mattress, headboard, carpet, sheets and area around your bed. A clue your skin rash might be due to bed bugs is if you wake up with itchy areas you didn’t have before going into bed (since this is where many people get bit since it’s easy for the bugs to live if they have access to blood frequently). Another risk factor is if you recently bought a new bed, carpet or furniture, especially if any of it was previously owned.

Some people notice certain signs that point to bed bugs around their homes, including:

  • Blood stains on sheets or pillowcases or dark spots that might be bed bug excrement
  • Small egg shells or shed skins
  • An usual odor that is described as “musty”

2. Thoroughly Wash Affected Surfaces and Fabrics

It’s recommended if you spot bed bugs in your home or develop any signs of bed bug bites that you call a professional service company that’s experienced with dealing with them. There are some companies that use organic, natural products to help control bed bugs, but most won’t. Ask about what types of options companies in your area offer in regard to the type of insecticides they use. If you do choose to hire a company that uses chemical insecticides, make sure the products are safe to use on mattresses that might later come into contact with your skin.

The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to throw out your mattress, couch, carpet or clothing if bed bugs have infested them, although many people choose to. It’s possible to clean fabrics and surfaces enough to remove bed bugs and their eggs, which is most successful when done using professional cleaning equipment that’s powerful.

  • Clothing or fabrics that might have come into contact with bed bugs or their eggs should be washed in a washing machine and dried on heat high for at least 30 minutes, both of which helps kill them.
  • You can add natural essential oils to your washing machine detergent to boost its anti-bug/antibacterial powers, including lemon oil and thyme oil. Thyme oil (Thymus vulgaris) not only repels bugs, but it also helps treat skin that’s already been bitten. Due to its active constituents that keep away pests and parasites that feed on the body (mosquitoes, fleas, lice and other insects, in addition to bed bugs), it’s a natural way to safeguard your skin and home. Add a few drops of thyme oil to your laundry, use it to rub down surfaces, diffuse several drops in your home or apply it to your bath if you already have signs of bites.
  • Once the affected surface or mattress is removed, be sure to encase the clean mattress and box spring with a tightly woven, zippered cover to keep bedbugs from entering or escaping. Keep the cover on for at least a year to ensure that all bugs that might still be inside die off and cannot escape to other surfaces.

3. Use Neem Oil

Neem oil is a naturally occurring pesticide that’s derived from seeds of the neem tree. Azadirachtin is the most active component of neem oil that helps repel insects and pests due to its strong smell. The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that neem oil can be safe and effective against bed bugs both in both private homes and other commercial environments.

Not only does it repel bed bugs from settling in your home, but neem oil helps stop them from reproducing if they’re already there. Look for two products that contain concentrated neem oil and are ready to use: TER-TRU1 (containing 5.5 percent cold-pressed neem oil, which is best for homes) and TER-CX1 (containing 22.0 percent cold-pressed neem oil, which is best for commercial use in large spaces).

4. Apply Diatomaceous Earth

Another natural bug-repelling substance, diatomaceous earth (DE), is made up of fossilized remains of tiny, aquatic organisms called diatoms. It usually comes in the form of a white powder and is also used in water filtering, food manufacturing, skin products and farming to naturally eliminate free radicals, viruses, insects, parasites and other harmful organisms.

DE contains silica, which has been found in studies to kill insects by removing a portion of the razor-thin, waxy outer coating that helps the insects conserve moisture and survive. It essentially dries them up from inside without the use of chemicals and tends to be more effective than products that rely on abrasion or poisoning. (12) Sprinkle DE powder where needed in your home, rub the powder into fabrics/your carpets with a brush or broom, and then let the powder sit for about four to 12 hours before vacuuming. It’s recommended that you repeat this process once a week for a total of three to four weeks.

5. Help Stop Bed Bug Bite Itching

Skin that has been affected with a rash caused by bed bug bites should be cleaned and treated with mild anti-itch solutions. You can use a natural antihistamine product on your skin to lower swelling, itching and redness. Natural treatments for bites include:

  • Patchouli oil. Patchouli oil has antiphlogistic properties, which means that it has the power to soothe inflammation of the skin and speed healing. Rub several drops of patchouli oil into your hands and massage anywhere where you have bites. Don’t wash the oil off, but rather let it soak into any inflamed area. You can also soak in a warm bath with five to 10 drops.
  • Cool compresses. Help keep swelling down and can soothe irritated skin.
  • Oatmeal baths. Reduce itching, redness and dryness.
  • Tea tree essential oil. Tea tree oil has numerous uses for skin. Use it to curb itching, help prevent redness and inflammation, and treat sensitive skin as it’s healing. Rub one to two drops at a time into a carrier oil like coconut oil, then apply it to affected areas twice daily. Other products and essential oils that are beneficial for rashes when used on the skin include witch hazel, geranium, rose and lavender oils, along with coconut oil to treat dried skin or scabs left behind. Simply rub three drops of essential oil on the area three times daily. If you have sensitive skin, you can mix three drops with half teaspoon of coconut oil first to dilute the strength.

Final Thoughts on Bed Bug Bites

  • Over 99 percent of all professional pest control companies report treating homes or buildings infested with bed bugs within the past year, which makes bed bug bites extremely common annoyances.
  • Bed bugs are found in every state in the U.S., just about every country, and in new and old homes alike. The Pest World Organization reports that bed bug occurrences are up dramatically from about 10–15 years ago, and experts around the world feel that these bugs have recently “undergone a worldwide resurgence” for reasons that aren’t totally understood.
  • Pest control surveys show that the top three places where bed bugs are found include apartments/condominiums, single-family homes and hotels/motels — making just about anyone susceptible to bed bug bites without a moment’s notice.
  • Although their name makes it sound like they only live inside of beds or mattresses, bed bugs can survive in other spaces too, including couches or sofas, luggage, sheets, inside dressers, or in rugs/carpets. Other than homes or motels, places where it’s common to find bed bugs include any space where people live or work in tight quarters, especially if the space is cluttered and not cleaned often — such as nursing homes, college dorms, corporate offices, schools, day care centers and hospitals.
  • The most common symptoms of bed bug bites include itching on the skin, small red bumps that tend to occur in lines or zigzags on the legs or arms, skin eruptions that might ooze puss before healing, and dryness and pigment changes in the skin when the bites heal.
  • There are many myths surrounding bed bugs — including that they only bite at night, are only found in the summer and can jump across entire rooms. Bed bugs don’t just wait until you’re sleeping to start biting; they’re actually capable of biting any time of day. Although it’s a common misconception that bed bugs fly and can move quickly from room to room, they don’t actually have wings, and they aren’t capable of jumping/hopping far either. Instead, they crawl from surface to surface, usually on the search for more food.
  • To identify and get rid of bed bugs, inspect your home, clean up clutter, thoroughly wash affected surfaces and fabrics, use neem oil, apply diatomaceous earth, and treat bed bug bites by stopping the itching.

Read Next: Top 5 Home Remedies for Mosquito Bites


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