-- What's biting me at night??? --
People often report that they are being bitten by something, often at night, but there is no sign of a bug. While there are a number of insects and mites that bite and leave a red, swollen and itchy bite mark or lesion, there are also many other causes of skin irritation that can be easily mistaken for bug bites. In many cases, therefore, what appears to be a bug bite may in fact be caused by something else. Below you'll find a list of insects and mites that do bite as well as some things that can be mistaken for bug bites.
I am frequently asked to diagnosis the cause of bug bites that seem to appear for no obvious reason. There is no insect or mite to identify and the person has either a vague description of what may have bitten them or, ironically, an extremely detailed description.
Most people who contact me believe there are many insects and mites that bite us. In reality there are very few that actually bite people. Take a look at the list of insects and mites below that actually do bite people. If you can not clearly identify one of these as the cause of your bites then you should consider some of the other possibilities. In the descriptions below notice that the bites are all very similar (red, itchy bumps) making any diagnosis from examining the bite alone nearly impossible.
Bed bugs cause large, red, splotchy, itchy, mosquito-like bites. Bedding and furniture can be infested and bed bug bites generally occur at night. Bed bug infestations are fairly easy to detect because the bugs themselves are relatively large and feeding results in stains on bedding and possibly a distinctive room smell, see this article for details.
Mites that do bite people
There is a small number of mites that bite people resulting in itchy skin lesions. A very few also pose some health risk by transmitting disease like ticks or developing persistent skin conditions like scabies. The articles below should help you identify and treat the mites that bite people.
Flies that bite people
Fleas (there are many species) tend to be somewhat specific to a particular host animal. The one that most often impacts people and pets is the cat flea. This flea prefers cats and dogs but will also bite people (see this article for life history and control options when homes and pets are infested). Fleas and flea bites can occur, on occasion, even in homes without pets. See the article cited above for more information.
Finally, things that can be mistaken for bug bites
Allergies - since the red itchy skin lesions caused by real bug bites are an allergic reaction to proteins in the bug's saliva it should not be surprising that other types of allergies closely resemble bug bites. Food and respiratory allergies cause hives and itchiness that resemble bug bites as well. In fact, allergies are the number one cause of these skin reactions, they are far more common than real bug bites. For airborne allergens like mold spores the new air purifiers with HEPA filters can be very effective at cleaning the air of contaminants, see this article about air purifiers that remove airborne allergens.
Toxic chemicals - such as cleaning solvents and pesticides can cause severe skin lesions in sensitive individuals. Botanical insecticides are generally safer for indoor use and far less likely to cause problems (they work, too!).
Physical irritants - anything from fiberglass splinters to dry skin can cause irritation. In the case of dry skin a simple room humidifier can give fast, inexpensive relief. Dry, itchy skin is mostly a problem during winter months when central heating in our homes tends to dry the air.
Drug side effects - especially stimulants like amphetamines which are notorious for causing outbreaks of skin lesions caused by scratching to relieve the "crawling" sensations; even prescription drugs can cause these same effects.
Emotional stress and anxiety can cause skin lesions that can resemble bug bites. This may be one of the most common causes but also one that people are generally unwilling to accept. Any recent emotional upset or bout of anxiety that coincides with an outbreak of "bug bites" should be considered suspect.
The bottom line - you should not assume that a "bug" is causing the problem unless you can capture and identify one. In the absence of a verified bug your first step should be to consult with a medical professional to rule out some of the other causes such as allergies. The quicker you find the real cause the faster you'll get some real relief.
Professional-level pest control supplies are generally not available in home and garden stores but can be found at DoMyOwn.com, our affiliate.
This DK Smithsonian Handbook is an excellent general guide to insect identification (available through Amazon, our Affiliate):
For additional resources see our Insect Identification article.
How to search 'Bugs for more information
The easiest way is to open a Google search page and type: "your query" + site:livingwithbugs.com into the search box. For example, to find all 'Bugs articles about carpenter ants type: carpenter ants + site:livingwithbugs.com in the search box.The resulting list of pages may contain some Google advertising (marked with "Ad" next to the URL) as well relevant pages from 'Bugs. The ads do not originate with 'Bugs.