Lice and bed bugs are both biting infestations, so they're often confused. Lice treatment and bed bug treatment differ significantly, so it's important to know if you have head lice vs bed bugs. But how do you tell the difference between lice and bed bugs?
WHAT ARE BED BUGS?
Bed bugs are tiny, brown, wingless insects that bite humans at night, leaving many itchy bug bites in strings all over the body. Bed bugs hide in mattresses, box springs, bed frames, headboards, couches, and even wood furniture and wood floors during the day. They're transmitted through clothing, luggage, and used furniture. Signs of bed bugs, aside from bites, include dark brown blood stains on bedding, upholstery, or furniture.
WHAT ARE LICE?
There are 3 species of lice that act as human parasitic insects: head lice, body lice, and pubic lice. At LiceDoctors, we only treat head lice, so for the purposes of this article, assume that we are talking about head lice only.
Head lice are parasitic insects that live their entire lifecycle in human head hair. They're transmitted from direct contact. Their itchy bites will be limited to very near the scalp. By the time itching starts, nits should be visible to the naked eye on the head hair.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LICE AND BED BUGS
An infested person can determine if they have bed bugs vs lice using several criteria. Criteria to tell if you have bed bugs or lice include: appearance, symptoms, location, and sources.
HOW DO LICE VS. BED BUGS LOOK LIKE?
Lice vs bed bugs size, color, and shape differ significantly if you examine them closely. What does lice look like compared to bed bugs?
Appearance of head lice:
- Color: translucent, dull, greyish-beige, but they may look brown in the center because you can see the human blood inside them after they have a blood meal.
- Size: about the size of a sesame seed.
- Shape: narrow, oblong bodies.
Appearance of adult bed bugs:
- Color: opaque, reddish brown color, shiny exoskeletons.
- Size: adults grow up to a quarter inch in length, roughly the size of an apple seed.
- Shape: oval bodies that are flat (about the width of a credit card), but which puff up after a blood meal.
BED BUGD VS. LICE SYMPTOMS
Symptoms of head lice vs bed bugs are very different, although both bugs bite people to feed on human blood, and both bed bugs and lice feed at night.
To determine whether you're dealing with bed bug vs lice symptoms, it's all about the location of the symptoms on the body.
Symptoms of head lice include:
- Ticklish feeling of movement on the scalp, worse at night, leading to insomnia and irritability.
- Itchy sores or rash ONLY on or near the scalp, ears, and neck, and nowhere else.
- Tiny, translucent, firm eggs glued to the hairs near the scalp that don't come off easily.
Symptoms of bed bug infestations include:
- Bug bites anywhere on the body, especially in a string-of-pearls pattern and often on the abdomen, arms and legs.
- Brown color debris or stains on the sheets, or in the seams of mattresses and other furniture.
- Musty odors.
LOCATION: WHERE CAN LICE VS. BED BUGS BE FOUND?
The big difference is where they live. Knowing bed bugs live in the environment, whereas head lice stay on a human host, can help determine if you've got lice or bed bugs.
Head lice live:
- On the scalp of a human host.
- Very rarely, you'll find them on things that have recently touched a person with an active infestation. Lice may inadvertently be displaced onto inanimate objects like towels, bed linens, hats, shirts, and hair accessories, but they don't live there.
Bed bugs spend time in any tiny hiding place that's dark during the day, and emerge to feed on their human hosts at night.
Common bed bug infested areas include:
- In mattress seams.
- Between the fabric and wood of box springs.
- Inside cracks of bed frames or headboards.
- In bad infestations, in furniture upholstery crevices, in dressers, inside appliances, and behind loose wallpaper.
If you truly find lice in bed clothes, they're more likely to be body lice or pubic lice than head lice.
HOW DO LICE VS. BED BUGS SPREAD?
Where can you get lice from, vs how do you get bed bugs?
How lice are spread:
- Direct head-to-head contact with an infected person, like hugging.
- Very rarely, from an item an infested person has used on their hair, like a hat, towel, or bed sheets.
- Head lice have nothing to do with poor hygiene.
How bed bugs spread:
- Several bed bugs live together in each hiding place, but when a bed bug is ready to lay eggs, she'll strike out for new territory. This may be your suitcase, if you're staying in an infested environment.
- There may be bed bugs inside used furniture or textiles with crevices; never accept used items that have a musty odor or small brown spotty stains, especially a mattress or box spring.
- It is rare to get bed bugs from direct human contact, since they're too large to hide in human head or body hair, and spend most of their time off a human host.
BED BUGS VS. LICE DAMAGES
The main damages caused by both bugs are bites to the human skin, which we covered earlier under symptoms. Lice bites are different in size and location vs bed bug bites.
Damage caused by head lice infestation:
- Their tiny bites on the scalp don't generally cause the red bumps we associate with bug bites, but allergic reactions to lice bites may cause intense itching and skin rashes, which leads to scratching, which sometimes leads to infection.
- Nit shells remain glued to the hair shaft after treatment, which people may find aesthetically displeasing.
- Rarely, very severe untreated lice infestations may lead to anemia.
Damage caused by bed bug infestations:
- Dark brown stains from their feces on bedclothes, mattresses, and furniture.
- Allergic reactions to their bites on the body may cause larger red welts, since they inject a numbing agent when they bite. For some, these can cause itching.
Fortunately, neither parasite is known to spread disease.
HOW TO TREAT BED BUGS VS. LICE?
Successful eradication of head lice only involves a few steps, and is host-focused:
- Oiling the hair to immobilize the bugs, loosen the eggs, and lubricate the hair.
- Wet-combing then hand-picking each section until all bugs and nits are removed.
- Protecting the hair to avoid recurrence.
It's simple, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Eradicating lice is a lot of work; it is totally understandable if you need some assistance.
Eradication of bed bugs, conversely, is environment-focused, and may involve:
- Applying insecticide designed specifically for bed bugs to cracks, crevices, and seams.
- Applying steam directly to soft surfaces where bed bugs hide.
- Significantly raising or lowering the temperature of the entire building while there are no people or pets inside. This can only be reliable if done professionally.
- Putting heat-resistant infested items in the dryer on high.
- Disposing of infested items that cannot be treated.
In either case, detecting and treating an infestation early makes success without professional help more likely.
HOW TO PREVENT LICE AND BED BUGS?
Prevention of both bed bugs and lice is possible, but never foolproof.
Head lice are prevented by:
- Avoiding head-to-head contact with an infested person. Since lice generally are contagious while asymptomatic, it's hard to tell who's infested until it's too late.
- Wearing hairstyles that keep hair off yourself and others.
- Use products that coat the hair, or LiceDoctors lice repellent spray.
Bed bugs are prevented by:
- Inspecting hotel mattresses. If you find insects or many small brown stains, request different accommodations.
- Keeping your mattress inside an insect-barrier.
- Regular decluttering, thorough cleaning with a vacuum, and washing textiles in hot water, can help.
- Check crevices of used furniture for brown spots before taking it inside.
- Block cracks under doors with door sweeps.
- At the laundromat, use a disposable plastic sack rather than a laundry basket. Dry your clothes on high. Immediately put clothing in a clean plastic bag and avoid folding it there.
LICE VS. BED BUG SIMILARITIES
Once you know the differences, you might wonder how it's possible for anyone to confuse a head louse with a bed bug. But they do have a lot in common:
- Both insects are arthropods that have have six legs.
- Both are ectoparasites that feed on human blood.
- Both have small heads and large, segmented, pointed abdomens that change in appearance when they feed.
- Both can be a major challenge to get rid of.
But most notably, when you compare pictures of lice and bed bugs, baby bed bugs almost look like adult lice, in that they're translucent (so almost the same color) and tiny. Because adult lice look a lot like baby bed bugs, the best way to tell the difference between bedbugs and lice is to analyze their location and other symptoms, like nits.
ARE BED BUGS AND HEAD LICE RELATED?
The average person imagining bed bugs vs lice pictures small, wingless, brownish, blood-sucking insects that bother humans. So it makes sense to wonder if the head louse is related to the bed bug? While the infestations may seem similar, the bugs themselves have little in common phylogenetically.
Bed bugs are true bugs, of the order Hemiptera, and are more related to cicadas and aphids than they are to lice.
Head lice are of the order Phthiraptera, like all other lice, including the body louse and pubic louse. In some ways, it's harder to tell the difference between body lice vs bed bugs in the home. This is because body lice, unlike head lice, live mostly on belongings. Also, since both bite the body, body lice bites vs. bed bug bites are more challenging to differentiate.
ARE BED BUGS OR HEAD LICE WORSE?
There's a definite gross-out factor to finding out that you have bugs literally living in your hair! But when thinking about it rationally, most people agree that bed bugs are significantly worse than head lice:
- They suck more blood, and leave bigger bug bite bumps, on more different body parts.
- They can bite literally everyone in an environment, even pets, whereas lice only bite those they're living on. Pets can not get human head lice.
- Professional home treatment is necessary for bed bugs, since they can live for months without a blood meal! That means you can pick them up in an empty building, whereas you can avoid head lice generally by avoiding human contact.
THE BOTTOM LINE
When wondering if you have lice or bed bugs, look at the bug's appearance. If you can't find a bug, consider where on the body the lice bites vs bed bug bites occur.
It's important to know the difference between a bed bug vs lice, since treatment is very different. Unlike bed bugs, an exterminator can't eliminate lice. LiceDoctors is the expert at getting rid of head lice. Our treatment is safe, effective, and guaranteed to get eliminate lice. Call LiceDoctors to book an appointment today, at 800-224-2537.