Not all bloodsucking parasites were created equal. Fleas and bed bugs are notorious for their pesky appetite for human blood. If you’re like most people, you may think it makes no difference what insectoid bloodhound bit you. However, there is a great degree of medical complications that may arise from one bite or the other. In order to protect your household better, it’s crucial to know the differences between fleas and bedbugs to know what you’re dealing with.
As bloodsucking endoparasites, fleas have foregone the ability to fly in favour of adapting to move inside fur and plumage. Different flea species adapt to different hosts.
Adult fleas reach about 3mm in length and are usually brown, although that’s sort of irrelevant since they are pretty hard to spot with a naked eye.
Their bodies are flattened sideways and covered in back facing bristles which help them move between hairs and feathers. They compensate the lack of wings with incredible strength in their hind legs allowing them to jump 50 times their body length. The claws on their legs allow them to grip tight preventing dislodging by scratching.
They have mouthparts suitable for chewing only in their larval form since they feed on organic debris for sustenance at that stage of their life cycle. The adult flea’s mouth is adapted to piercing skin and sucking blood.
A parasitic bloodsucker in their own right, bedbugs (unlike fleas) have adapted to feed on a variety of sources and feed on humans when other prey is unavailable.
They are light brown sometimes reddish in colour and around 5mm long and around 2mm wide. Unlike fleas, they are flattened vertically and oval. Being flightless they have no hind wings, and their front ones are vestigial.
Bed bugs are also more resilient than fleas. They are able to withstand a wider range of temperatures and atmospheric conditions through semi-hibernation.
Having once infiltrated your home more than half the flea population will be in a larval stage. They generally prefer damp and dark places. Damp here doesn’t necessarily mean wet, but rather spots that are prone to retain moisture. Those include:
- Cushioned furniture
- Cracks along walls
- Between the floorboards
The larvae spin a cocoon in which they mature. Having reached the imago stage fleas can remain in that cocoon for up to five months. They “activate” when they sense a mammal nearby through carbon dioxide emissions or vibrations.
Their name makes it pretty obvious where bed bugs are most often found, but they are actually pretty crafty hitchhikers. Before setting up shop in your bed they can temporarily live in backpacks, suitcases, car seat cushioning, and even your shoes.
It’s not unusual for a clothing store to be invaded by bed bugs. They generally love fabrics and dark cracks in which they can slither. Bed bugs are pretty resistant to mechanical pressure which allows them to slip and hide almost anywhere.
They are different than fleas in that they don’t stick to their source of food instead lying in wait and feeding opportunistically during the night when people are asleep.
They generally bite low on the body around the ankles and legs. Those are the easiest access points. Flea bites can be felt almost immediately and turn red in under an hour. The bites swell like those from a mosquito, but are much smaller in size. Fleas don’t have an exact bite pattern and are instead randomly distributed.
Because they catch you unaware in your sleep bed bugs have the luxury to bite anywhere. However the most commonly affected places are those with exposed skin such as the face, neck, arms and hands. Their bites are more rough in texture than flea bites and don’t always form a bump. Another visual distinction is the darker red spot in the middle. The pattern of the bites is linear as bed bugs bite in a row and thus are more clustered.
The itching from a flea bite is not annoying but can also carry risk of infection if it’s constantly scratched. Lavender oil will help alleviate it. The cause of itching is not the bite itself, but rather a reaction to the flea’s saliva, which carries anticoagulant agents. For this reason there is a very real possibility of getting an allergic reaction to it.
Fleas can also be a potential infection vector for diseases like murine typhus, tungiasis, and last but definitely not least – bubonic plague. In fact many researchers believe the rat flea was the main factor for the spread of the pandemic that wiped more than half of Europe’s population in the 13th Century.
Their bites itch just as much as the flea’s, and thus carry the same risk of infection should the bite marks be further irritated by scratching. Keep the affected areas cleaned until they heal up. Allergic reactions are also not uncommon although more rare than those to flea bites.
While bed bugs do carry disease pathogens, they are generally not known to transmit disease, although studies from Penn show that bed bugs can transmit Chagas disease. However most commonly bed bug infestations affect our mental health. This comes about as sleep disturbance, which in turn can increase symptoms of anxiety and even depression in rare cases.