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Bedbugs (Bed Bugs) vs. Lice

What are bedbugs and lice? What are their main differences?

Woman with bites with swelling on her back.
Symptoms of bedbug bites include red, itchy bite marks on the face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and back.

What are bedbugs?

The common bed bug (Cimex lectularius) is considered a public health pest, but bedbugs do not transmit or spread disease. bedbugs are small, brown, oval-shaped insects that feed on blood, and their bites cause itching and irritation in humans. Bedbugs do not spread disease. 

Bedbugs often come into a home undetected through:

  • Clothing 
  • Luggage
  • Used beds and couches
  • Other household items

Usually bedbugs live in mattresses, box springs, bed frames, and headboards and bite people during the night.

Bedbugs are a problem worldwide, are resurging so they may become a serious problem.

What are lice?

Lice are parasitic insects that feed on human blood can be found on people's bodies. Lice found on different areas of the body differ from each other. There are three types of lice that live on humans:

  1. Pediculus humanus capitis (head louse)
  2. Pediculus humanus corporis (body louse, clothes louse)
  3. Pthirus pubis ("crab" louse, pubic louse)

Body lice is the only type of lice known to spread disease.

"Sea lice" is not the same as the type of lice that affect humans. Sea lice is a misnomer and actually refers to small parasites that affect fish. 

What do bedbugs and lice look like? How big are they?

Adult bedbugs

  • Adult bedbugs are small, about the size of an apple seed, with a flat-oval-shaped body which becomes more balloon-like and elongated after feeding.
  • They are brownish in color before feeding and reddish-brown after feeding.
  • They have a beak, antenna, wings that are not used for flying, and short golden hairs.
  • They produce a smelly, musty odor. 

Young bedbugs

  • Young bedbugs (called nymphs) are smaller and translucent or white to yellow in color.
  • If they have not fed recently, they may be nearly invisible to the naked eye

Head lice, body lice, and pubic lice

Head lice, body lice, and pubic lice have three forms:

  1. An egg (also called a nit)
  2. Nymph
  3. Adult

Nits are small (about the size of a knot in thread) and oval-shaped. They can appear white or yellow. Hair nits sometimes seem to be the same color as the hair of the infested person. Hair nits may resemble dandruff or hair spray. 

Nymphs look like adult head lice but are smaller. A fully-grown adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed, tan to grayish-white in color, and has six legs. Adult hair lice may appear darker in people with darker hair.

An adult public louse looks like a miniature crab when viewed through a magnifying glass, which is why they are called "crabs." 

Lice are a little smaller than bedbugs. 

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What are the differences and similarities in the signs and symptoms of bedbug vs. lice bites?

Signs and symptoms of bedbug bites

Signs and symptoms of bedbug bites include: 

  1. Red, itchy bite marks on the face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, or other body parts that occur while sleeping. Because bedbugs feed at night, their bites are usually not felt or noticed until redness and itching occur. 
  2. Bite marks may take up to 14 days to develop so other signs to look for include:
    1. Bedbugs in the folds of mattresses and sheets
    2. Bedbug exoskeletons after molting
    3. Rust–colored blood spots on mattresses or furniture
    4. A musty odor

Signs and symptoms of head lice

Signs and symptoms of head lice include: 

  1. Feeling something moving or tickling in the scalp and hair
  2. Itching
  3. Irritability 
  4. Difficulty sleeping
  5. Head lice are most active in the dark
  6. Sores on the head from scratching that may become infected

Signs and symptoms of body lice

Signs and symptoms of body lice include: 

  1. Intense itching and rash 
  2. Thick and discolored skin in areas that have been infested for a long time
  3. Sores on the body from scratching that may become infected

Signs and symptoms of pubic lice

Signs and symptoms of pubic lice include:

  1. Itching in the genital region
  2. Nits (lice eggs) or crawling lice that are visible to the naked eye

Similarities in the signs and symptoms of bedbugs vs. lice bites

The main similarities in signs and symptoms of bedbugs and lice are itching where bites occur. 

What are the main differences and similarities in where bedbugs and lice are found?

The main difference is that bedbugs infest objects in the home, while lice infest the body. 

Bedbugs

  • Bedbugs can be found in many different places when they are not feeding.
  • They are frequently found in and around beds: the seams, piping, and tags of mattresses and box springs, and in cracks on the bed frame and headboard. Bedbugs may also be found in luggage or clothing if a person has recently traveled and stayed in a place that had a bed bug infestation.
  • Bedbugs are very small and flat – about the width of a credit card – so they can fit into tiny cracks and hiding places. 

In a heavy infestation of bedbugs, they can also be found:

  • In the seams of sofas and chairs
  • Between cushions
  • Seat covers
  • Curtain folds
  • In drawer joints
  • Under loose wallpaper 
  • In electrical appliances
  • In the head of a screw
  • Where lice are found depends on the type of lice. 

Head, body, and pubic lice

  • Head lice infest the scalp, especially near the neckline and behind the ears. They attach their eggs to the base of the hair shaft. 
  • Body lice are found on clothing and bedding. Eggs may occasionally be found attached to body hair.
  • Pubic lice are found attached to hair in the genital area or on pubic hair but they may sometimes be found on other coarse body hair such as eyebrows, eyelashes, mustache, beard, chest, leg hair, or armpit hair.

Main similarities in bedbugs vs. lice

  • Both bedbugs and lice feed on blood to survive.
  • They may both be transmitted from infested clothing.
  • Neither bedbugs nor lice can fly. 
     

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Can bedbugs be mistaken for lice?

Bedbugs and lice generally would not be mistaken for one another. 

  • Bedbugs are generally found in hiding places such as mattress seams, while lice live on the body of the infested person. 
  • Bedbugs are bigger than lice, about the size of an apple seed, while lice are about the size of a sesame seed. 
  • Bedbugs have flat, oval bodies, while lice are more oblong in shape.
  • Bedbugs are brown, while lice are usually transparent, white, or yellow.
  • Once lice fill with blood, they will become a brown color.
  • Bedbugs may leave a smelly, musty odor, while lice do not have an odor. 

What causes bedbug and lice infestations?

  • Bedbugs are small and hide easily, and they are typically carried from place to place during travel.
  • Bedbugs can be a problem in hotels, dorm rooms, and other types of residences.
  • Bedbugs hide in luggage seams, overnight bags, folded clothing, bedding, furniture, and other hiding places.
  • Lice are transmitted through direct contact with an infested person, or by sharing clothing or bed linens with an infested person. 
     

What natural home remedies treat itching from bedbug and lice bites?

Natural home remedies to treat bed bug and lice bites are aimed at relieving itching but they do not get rid of the infestation. The infestation needs to be treated. If you have bedbug or lice bites and have excessive scratching it can lead to sores and infections. Consult a dermatologist if you suspect you have bed bug or lice bites. 

Natural home remedies to relieve itching caused by bedbug or lice bites include: 

  • Wash the area thoroughly with soap and water
  • Use an ice pack on the affected area (never place ice directly on the skin)
  • Mix 1 teaspoon baking soda with 3 teaspoons of water. Mix and apply the paste to the affected area and let sit for 10 minutes before rinsing. Repeat as needed. 
  • Dab lemon juice on the affected area (avoid sun exposure as lemon juice can make the skin sensitive to sunlight)
  • Soak a cotton ball in witch hazel, apply to the affected area and let sit for 10 minutes
  • Apply Aloe vera gel to the bites
  • Apply apple cider vinegar to the bites
  • Make a fine paste with oatmeal and water. Apply to the affected area and let sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Rinse off with water. Repeat the process for a couple of days. Or take an oatmeal bath by mixing 1/2 cup of colloidal oatmeal into the bathtub filled with warm water. Soak for 10 to 15 minutes. 
  • Apply a cucumber slice to the affected area and 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Moist, cool tea bags can help with the swelling and itching. Place a moist tea bag in the refrigerator to cool, and then let sit on the affected area 15 minutes. 
     

What medications, shampoos, and other products treat bedbug and lice bites?

Bedbug bite treatment

Because bedbugs infest objects such as mattresses and furniture, there are no medications or shampoos to treat them. Treating an infestation may involve use of pesticides. 

Lice bite treatment

Lice treatment may include both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription shampoos and medications. 

Over-the-counter (OTC) lice medications include:

  • pyrethrins combined with piperonyl butoxide (A–200, Pronto, R&C, Rid, and Triple X)
  • permethrin lotion, 1% (Nix)

Prescription head lice medications include:

Can bedbug or lice bites and infestations be serious? Can you get diseases from them?

Neither bedbug or head lice bites are usually serious. Neither is considered a public health hazard, and except for body lice, they do not spread disease. 

  • Both bedbugs and lice bites can cause considerable itching, and scratching the bites may result in sores that can become infected. Always see a doctor if you suspect you have been bitten by bedbugs or lice. 
  • Lice can spread rapidly in schools, so it is often helpful to notify your child's school so they can take appropriate precautions to prevent the lice from spreading to other children. 
  • Body lice can spread certain illnesses including epidemic typhus, trench fever, and louse-borne relapsing fever. These diseases are not common in more developed countries but can be a problem in places where there are chronic poverty and people live together in unsanitary conditions.

Bedbugs infestations are becoming a worldwide problem, and it is resurging.

Can you prevent bedbug and lice bites and infestations?

To prevent bed bug infestations:

  • Inspect mattresses in hotel rooms for bedbugs
  • Check all used beds, couches, and furniture for signs of bed bug infestation before bringing them home
  • Use protective covers for mattresses and box springs to eliminate bed bug hiding places
  • Keep your home clean and uncluttered so bedbugs have fewer places to hide
  • Vacuum frequently 
  • Be careful when using shared laundry facilities. Bring items to be washed in plastic bags, and if you have an active infestation use a new bag for the clean clothing when done. Use the dryer on high heat to kill bedbugs. 
  • If you live in a multi-family home, keep your unit isolated by installing door sweeps and sealing any cracks and crevices

Prevention of lice infestations:

  • Do not share beds, couches, pillows, carpets, or stuffed animals with an infested person.
  • Machine wash and dry clothing, bed sheets, and other items an infested person wore or used during the 2 days before treatment using the hot water (130°F) laundry cycle and the high heat drying cycle. 
  • Vacuum the floor and furniture.

Additional prevention of head lice infestation include:

  • Avoiding head-to-head (hair-to-hair) contact during play, sports, on the playground, at slumber parties or camp
  • Do not share clothing, especially head wear and hair accessories
  • Do not share hair care items such as brushes, combs, or towels. 

Additional prevention of body lice infestation include:

  • Bathing regularly and wearing properly laundered clean clothes at least once a week
  • Fumigation or dusting with chemical insecticides may be necessary to control and prevent the spread of body lice for certain diseases 

Additional prevention of public ("crab") lice infestation include:

  • Avoid sexual contact between the infested persons and their sexual partner(s) until all have been treated as necessary
  • Persons with pubic lice should be examined and treated for other possible sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) .
     

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Reviewed on 2/18/2020
References
Bedbugs. CDC. Last reviewed: May 24, 2016.
<https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/bedbugs/>

Parasites - Lice. CDC. Updated: Sep 11, 2019.
<https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/index.html>

Russel, I, RN, MSN, CCRN, CEN, et al. CLINICAL ARTICLES SEABATHER'S ERUPTION OR "SEA LICE": New findings and clinical implications. Floridahealth.gov.
<http://www.floridahealth.gov/diseases-and-conditions/food-and-waterborne-disease/_documents/sea-lice-or-sea-bathers-eruption.pdf>

Sruthika. 9 Effective Remedies to Get Rid of Bed Bug Bites. DYI Remedies. Updated: Nov 01, 2017.
<https://diyremedies.org/bed-bug-bites/>

United States Environmental Protection Agency. bedbugs: Get Them Out and Keep Them Out. EPA.gov 2020. <https://www.epa.gov/bedbugs>
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