I often receive phone calls from people truly distressed by itches, who say, “bugs are biting me.” Most of the time the callers are correct and they are suffering from insects we can take care of: bed bugs, fleas, or bird mites. If itching isn’t caused by any of these household pests, and mosquitoes are not suspected, then the problem might be scabies or lice.
Identifying Bug Bites
Bed bug bites often appear as red itchy welts in groups of three. Bites will be located in the areas of the body most easily accessed in a sleeping person: neck, arms and legs, the sides of the back. Some people have extreme reactions to bed bug bites and may experience very large welts. Thirty-percent of people do not react to bed bug bites at all.
Flea bites typically result in very small raised, itchy welts below the knee. In a residence with a high flea infestation, bites may be encountered on any part of the body, but still mostly confined to areas of exposed skin.
Bird mite bites usually appear as multiple small (pin-point sized) red lesions on the extremities. Bird mite bites may cause intense itching and irritation even when there is no visible sign of a bite.
Bed bugs, fleas, and bird mites can be exterminated by a pest control company.
Human itch mites (scabies) burrow into the skin, often between the fingers, or the bend of elbows, knees, and groin. This is considered a medical problem and is easily diagnosed and treated by a doctor.
Head lice cause itching to the scalp and neck. The diagnosis of head lice infestation is best made by finding a live nymph or adult louse on the scalp or hair of a person. A fine-toothed louse comb is a very helpful tool for finding lice or louse eggs. Head lice respond to home treatment.
Now and then, however, a caller will suffer from an invisible itch—an itch caused by something we can’t see. While there are only half a dozen insect species likely to cause itchy bites, there are hundreds of household products, environment factors, and health-related conditions that can make you itch. An excellent list of these itch triggers is found in “Invisible Itches: Insect and Non-Insect Causes,” from the University of Kentucky.
Itching is real and causes real distress. We hate telling someone we can’t find evidence of bugs. With a bug infestation there is a clear protocol for control, and for itch relief. When confounded by itching without a known source, consider non-insect causes.