Fleas, Ticks, or Bed Bugs? Here’s How To Tell The Difference


Woman Holding Magnifying Glass Over Bed, Showing Bed Bug With Text "Identifying Fleas, Ticks and Bed Bugs, How To Guide" Overtop

Waking up to discover bugs have invaded your bedroom and your body bombarded with bites is a rather unpleasant experience. The blame is often allocated to either a flea, tick, or bed bug. However, as they are unique animals in their own respect, it is not always clear how to tell them apart. Therefore, we have highlighted for you an overview of the ways to identify the difference between fleas, ticks, and bed bugs.

Fleas are narrow, brown-looking parasites with a fondness for fur and prefer to feed on cats or dogs. Ticks are round, black-looking parasites that live outdoors, usually spotted in forested areas. Bed bugs are flat, oval, and red-looking parasites that hide around dark spots in the bedroom.

Are little creatures bugging you in the night? If the answer is yes, you can rest assured that it is definitely not a tick, most likely not a flea, quite probably a bed bug.

But before we dive into the various aspects in which fleas, ticks, and bed bugs differ from each other, let’s have a look at who they really are and what they actually have in common amongst each other. Therefore, an introduction to our three little fellows is in order. Let’s bite right into it…

What Are Fleas, Ticks & Bed Bugs?

Generally speaking, we know fleas, ticks, and bed bugs as, well: bugs! Indeed, they are tiny crawling insects that we might fear lurking upon us at night.

In times before hygiene standards were pushed to a respectable height, there was a big problem concerning bugs in general. Indeed, before the sanitary revolution of the 19th century, these insects were very frequently reported to be a pest, infesting entire villages and their populations.

It was concerning and inconvenient, to say the least. Eventually, it took until the mid 20th century, with the world wars’ atrocities behind us, to actually see some lasting change. Unfortunately, in recent years, with the exponential growth of urbanization and city life, the bed bugs have been somewhat making a return.

It is said that their return – although they have never truly left – relates to an increase in population and an increase in global mobility. Indeed, people travel further and more frequently. However, there isn’t cause for total panic. While our living conditions and modern treatments have vastly improved, the consequences of being bitten have also been drastically reduced.

Before I get deep into this, if you do have notice fleas or bed bugs in your home, you need to contact a professional exterminator right away to deal with the issue. Even if you notice just one, it can turn into a full-blown infestation rather quickly.

A Chart Comparison: Fleas, Ticks & Bed Bugs

TypeFleaTickBed Bug
FamilyPulicidaeIxodidaeCimicidae
ClassInsectaArachnidaInsecta
AppearanceBrown Dark ShadesBrown With Dark HeadRed With Brown Shades
ShapeNarrowRoundOval
SizeUp to 3 mmUp to 10 mmUp to 5 mm
Life Span2-3 MonthsUp to 3 years6-12 months
Found?Carpets / Rugs / PetsWooded Areas / Tall GrassDark Areas Near Mattress
FoodMammals / BirdsMammals / Birds / ReptilesMammals / Birds / Rodents
MovementNo Flight / Can JumpQuestingCrawling
A Comparison of Fleas, Ticks & Bed Bugs

An In-Depth Look: The Jumping Flea

Macro Shot of Flea Jumping on Skin

Fleas are brown, dark-looking, and narrow-shaped little insects. They are also called Siphonaptera, are Arthropoda, just like bed bugs, although genuinely smaller. Like bed bugs, fleas are parasites of both mammals and birds.

Although fleas cannot fly and cruise in the air, they do have some tricks in store.

Fleas, unlike bed bugs and ticks, can jump! Interestingly enough, the power with which the flea unleashes to make a jump is almost equal to the propulsion of a space rocket. That said, it is perhaps no surprise – although undoubtedly remarkable – that a flea can jump 150 to 200 times their own height (8 to 13 inches high.)

The most common flea in Northern America is the cat flea, referring to the way in which they are readily found on both cats and dogs. That said, many fleas are also known to be found in carpets, rugs, and curtains. However, in order to get there, they do first need to travel by pet.

Unlike bed bugs, who bite and go back to their shelter, fleas can remain attached to their host for a period of months.

Quick fact: When compared to ticks and bed bugs, fleas have the shortest lifespan, as they generally tend to only live for 2 to 3 months.

Actually, fleas do not live on humans. Interestingly enough, fleas need to lay their eggs in the harbor of fury animals, as furs or feathers may serve as a nest for protection. However, if there are – on the rare occasion – plenty of fleas around, they can end up finding their way to you. Although reasonably harmless, they are probably more attracted to your pet if you have a cat or dog close by.

More than likely you WON’T be the host for a flea. As in you personally as a human. Unless you’re just incredibly hairy. More than likely, a flea will bite you along the ankles as you get near them while they attempt to jump onto you.

Above all, make sure to treat your pet with a smooth scrubbing session. If you don’t have any furry pets, the chance you spot a flea or get bitten by one remains relatively small.

An In-Depth Look: The Sneaky Tick

Female Tick Walking on Grass

Ticks belong to the class of Arachnida and are part of the Ixodidae family. Ticks are generally more dark-looking than fleas and bed bugs, especially in North America. That said, they can also come in the shade of brown.

Strictly speaking, ticks are not classified as insects, as they belong to the class of Arachnida; they are actually more like spiders. Interestingly enough, although born with six legs, they acquire two more legs after their first serving of blood. It is with their two front legs, stretching forward, that ticks tend to attach themselves to their prey.

Unlike fleas and bed bugs, ticks are external parasites. As such, they are rarely found indoors. Although you won’t readily see them, they might find their way to you when walking in the forests or hiking in the mountains.

Ticks, like bed bugs, cannot fly nor jump to the rescue. They are, however, known to be sneaky when it comes to finding their way close to us. Although it’s not very common, ticks can stick onto your skin or hide inside the warmth of your hair. However, they won’t actually come to you, as the way for them to bite is for you to physically cross them on your path.

Indeed, usually, they attach themselves to an overarching branch or leaf. Basically, they need a surface to serve as a bridge towards their prey. They tend to hide in a specific spot, waiting for their prey to cross. Their waiting position is also known as ‘questing.’ In general, ticks are relatively slow and tend to keep traveling at a minimum.

When bitten, it’s essential to take note and remove the tick as quickly as possible. Certain ticks like the deer tick and wood tick can carry Lyme disease and other various diseases. The fact is, many ticks are quite harmless but you really, really want to make sure that they don’t have Lyme.

My father quite frequently gets tick bites when he’s out in the woods chopping wood. At the time of this article, we had JUST gotten off the phone, with him telling me how he had a bruise on his chest which actually turned out to be a tick.

In this situation, what he did was have my mom remove the tick with tweezers, and then place the tick in a vile, and consult with his doctor. They ended up shipping the tick off to a local lab to test for Lyme disease because you really don’t want to mess with the chance that the tick could have it, even if there are little to no symptoms presenting.

Incase you do end up getting bit by a tick, I do recommend keeping some glass test tube vials handy so you’re able to ship the specimen off appropriately to a lab. Feel free to take a look at the Glass Test Tube Stoppers from Depepe.

An In-Depth Look: The Crawling Bed Bug

Bed bugs, also referred to as Cimex lectularius, are small Arthropoda that belong to the Cimicidae. They are parasitic animals of about 5 mm, and 1/4 inch long, about the size of a pinhead or an apple seed.

Usually, bed bugs present themselves in a reddish color, usually brown. Curiously enough, bed bugs will turn more dark and red when recently fed.

With their six legs, they are excellent crawlers. However, they also lack the flea’s ability to jump, and as such, are known only to traverse from surface to surface while keeping travel distances to a minimum.

Bed bugs are also slow when it comes to reproduction. It tends to take up to six weeks for a nymph to grow into a fully developed bed bug.

Quick fact: Interestingly enough, the young bed bugs, which are usually referred to as nymphs, have a more whitish and translucent look. However, as the nymphs are translucent and relatively small, they are pretty tricky to spot with the naked eye. Therefore, when spotting a bed bug, there might be a nymph in its presence.

As for their figure, bed bugs are flat and oval-shaped. They are, like fleas and ticks, wingless parasites that cannot fly. Although they do grow a set of flaps, they do not evolve to the state which enables them to fly.

During the daytime, bed bugs usually hide on the surface of your hard or soft mattress, the bed frame, and in or under the cupboards.

As we spend quite some time in our bedrooms, it is not surprising they prefer to stay close as well. That said, bed bugs are known to venture away from the bed towards the living space, spreading to whatever surface they can find.

It is interesting to note that bed bugs do not tend to stick onto your skin like a tick or hide in hairs like fleas. In general, they prefer to remain stationed on cold surfaces rather than heating themselves up. Therefore, they are most likely to travel by using material or surface instead of attaching themselves to us.

Interesting fact: Although bed bugs are classified as public health pests, they are not toxic nor lethal. According to the CDC, bed bugs generally don’t carry disease. Indeed, they are annoying little buggers. Undoubtedly, they can induce some stress, culminating in a few sleepless nights. Of course, when bitten, it is always important to take proper care of yourself and avoid further infections. 

During the night-time, they will come out for an all-nighter. Indeed, they are nocturnal and prefer to suck up a little blood during the cold of the night. However, when very hungry and at the end of their patience, they might come out and venture under the light. On the rare occasion that they do come out during the day-time, it might be a sign that there are quite a lot of bed bugs present on your property.

Regardless, at the FIRST moment you spot a bed bug or sign of them you need to contact an exterminator ASAP. Bed bugs just DON’T go away on their own. The longer you wait, the worse the problem will become.

How To Spot Fleas, Ticks & Bed Bugs In Your Home

As these parasites attach themselves to climbable surfaces, it goes without saying they are ideal hitchhikers when it comes to finding a way inside your home. Perhaps they latch onto your new furniture, box, or package received.

Even more likely, they might get a hold of your luggage, bag, or purse. Indeed, they can strap themselves to whatever surface they come across, only for you to carry them inside unknowingly (moreso fleas and bed bugs, rather than ticks.)

Therefore, let’s have a look at how to spot them inside.

The Trick To Spotting Fleas

Fleas spread from animal to animal (but not from human to human, though). This means they can be carried inside by way of pets. Indeed, most fleas tend to shelter in the warmth of a cat, or dog’s fur.

Generic Flea Comb Being Used on Dog

In the case they do find their way to your pet, they might be able to pay a visit inside the house. When this happens, the fleas may spread themselves around your pet’s shelter or attach themselves to the carpet or far-reaching corners in your furniture.

However, as fleas usually choose to shelter in the close proximity of cats and dogs, it will be a good idea to look for brown, dark spots on the back of your pet, etc. A sign of the presence of fleas might be the excessive scratching of your cat or dog. It is, therefore, a good idea to brush your pet and remove any excess hair.

This can even be done with a flea comb. They are actually pretty effective and widely used. For more information, you can take a look at the following Flea Comb by Safari.

Now, the goal of the flea comb is early detection. If you’re suspecting that your pet has fleas while they’ve been in your house for a few days AND THEN you use the flea comb, you more than likely need to contact an exterminator, still, to examine the rest of your home.

Additionally, you may be suspicious that you have fleas if you notice a bites around your lower extremities (ankles, etc.) Flea bites present different In everyone, but you’ll often have groups of bites right around the ankles, which will be itchy as well.

Of course, you’ll always want to contact your local vetrenarian as well, as they know your pet best.

Now, next up: the sneaky tick.

The Trick To Spotting Ticks

Honestly, I didn’t realize that the header rhymed until after writing it. Pretty happy there.

Unlike bed bugs, ticks like it warm and are even known to become more active when temperatures are rising high. That said, they do not enjoy the sun and prefer to stay hidden. As they prey on a wide range of animals, small to medium size, from ant to birds, they tend to locate themselves on their prey’s pathway – in hopes to catch a ride.

Therefore they’ll be readily found hanging on branches, leaves, and everything that sticks out. Although they are normally spotted in forested areas and places that harbor a wide diversity of prey, they can occasionally be found near beaches, especially along the high grass near the dunes.

Furthermore, they could be spotted in green areas within the cities. However, it is still most likely for them to be hiding in the wild, between wooded and grassy landscapes covered in bush.

Overall, a tick tends to be somewhat bigger than a flea, or a bed bug (10 mm). Therefore, they should be easier to spot with the naked eye.

That said, as they prefer to stay hidden, they remain rather complex to discover along your path. The chances that you do come across a tick might be slightly increased during the summer months, especially in wooded areas with tall grass. Again, this is because they enjoy the comfort of warmth.

Another way that you may spot a tick is similar to feeling a bruise on your body, which is where the tick may have latched on.

You can follow the recommendations from the CDC on tick removal if you suspect that this is the case.

How To Spot Bed Bugs

Bed bugs are cold-blooded, meaning their metabolism is relatively slow, especially when entering a colder atmosphere. Interestingly enough, this means they can go for months without a drop of blood. Therefore, it can become problematic for us to place them in the spotlight.

Bed Bug Crawling on Rug

Indeed, spotting a bed bug might be more challenging than spotting a flea or tick. This is also because bed bugs have a wild, transformative life cycle. The appearance of a bed bug changes drastically, especially when comparing a newborn to an adult. In short, bed bugs go through six different transformations. As they change, they grow larger until, eventually, their growth cycle ends.

Although some insects are known to live up to 50 years, bed bugs usually live to be 6 to 12 months old.

Our friendly buggers usually hide around dark spots, the ins, and outs of the cracks in our walls, furniture, or mattress. They can even hide in your curtains, window frames, or at the sides of a neatly placed wall socket.

When bitten by a bed bug, you will see signs of red swollen spots on your skin which can be a bit itchy. The most common places where they tend to bite are the spots that remain most exposed when sleeping, such as the shoulders, neck, arms, legs, and feet.

Finally, you can look for dark spots they leave behind on the mattress or around the bed and underneath the furniture. In the end, only on rare occasions will you be (un)lucky enough to spot a few live ones.

In order to aid in detection, you can also procure some glue traps for bed bugs as well.

Glue traps for bed bugs aren’t meant to solve the bed bug infestation but rather, help in detecting the insects to confirm that you have them. They’re especially useful if you aren’t an experienced bed bug spotter.

How To Deter Fleas, Ticks & Bed Bugs From Your Home

First of all, ticks won’t be a problem here, as they won’t usually venture inside themselves. Congrats! You’re already 1/3rd of the way there. Sort of, just stay out of any wooded areas 🙂

For purposes of keeping these buggers from your home, we are talking mainly about fleas and bed bugs.

The Golden Rule: Keep Things Clean

As always, the golden rule to keep clear of any nuisance is to keep your property clean. Get rid of the trash and clutter, principally in the proximity of your bedroom.

Besides proper maintenance of your home, it is, of course, advised to adopt a high hygiene standard and thus regularly washcloths and bedsheets, etc.

Furthermore, a vacuum cleaner can become your best friend, as it will serve to clean the floor while also potentially getting rid of any bugs left behind.

Scrub, Scrub, Scrub Your Carpet & Pet

When it comes to fleas, it is clear that there is a bigger chance that they come and pay a visit when you have a pet on your property. So make sure you regularly clean your pet’s shelter and warm their feet with a proper wash. It is furthermore advised to offer your pet a proper scrubbing and washing sitting.

If you have a carpet, you should routinely scrub it and keep it clean. Additionally, you could always go and rent a carpet cleaner from your local appliance or home goods store.

Inspect Things You’re Bringing in From Outside

When it comes to bed bugs, it is advised to inspect anything you may carry inside from outside. For instance, when buying furniture, you might want to make sure there are no signs of visitors while trying to keep the box and method of transportation as clean as possible.

Additionally, luggage is a HUGE bed bug transportation method. Oftentimes, your luggage will be sitting in the cargo hold next to another passenger’s luggage who HAS bed bugs. Those very same bed bugs will hitch a ride on your luggage and thus, right into your home after.

Use Peppermint & Scents

Fleas and bed bugs tend to have a peculiar nose. For instance, they dislike the smell of fresh peppermint, so you can always choose to apply some mint to boiling water to maximize the effect.

Keep in mind, for EITHER – you really need to contact an exterminator ASAP if you have them.

Nevertheless, you can also use an actual incense stick or a mint spray. For more information concerning a ready-made mint spray, you can have a quick look at the following product, the Mighty Mint. Although not entirely full-proof, it can actually make the room smell nice and help reduce stress levels – similar to the use of lavender. Lastly, another scent that bed bugs seem to loathe is the smell of garlic.

While products can help, I can’t reiterate enough how vital it is that as soon as you see a flea or bed bug in your home, you need to resolve the problem as soon as you can, especially with bed bugs.

That’s a Wrap!

There you have it, the ins and outs of fleas, ticks, and bed bugs!

In case of doubt, you can always try to capture a little sample of the tiny bug you come across and request support from your local animal control.

Hopefully, this guide gave you a pretty good understanding of the difference between these little buggers!

References

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Doggett, S. L., & Russell, R. (2009). Bed bugs: What the GP needs to know. Australian family physician.

Dryden, M. W. (2009). Flea and tick control in the 21st century: challenges and opportunities. Veterinary dermatology, 20(5‐6), 435-440.

Eddy, C., & Jones, S. C. (2011). Bed bugs, public health, and social justice: part 1, a call to action. Journal of environmental health, 73(8), 8-14.

Fawcett, B., & Black, M. (2008). A new global sanitary revolution: lessons from the past.

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Juckett, G. (2013). Arthropod bites. American family physician, 88(12).

Koganemaru, R., & Miller, D. M. (2013). The bed bug problem: past, present, and future control methods. Pesticide Biochemistry and Physiology, 106(3).

McNeill, C., Jarrett, A., & Shreve, M. D. (2017). Bed bugs: current treatment guidelines. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners.

Melosi, M. V., & Hanley, J. G. (2000). The sanitary city: Urban infrastructure in America from colonial times to the present. Urban History Review.

Murrell, A., Dobson, S. J., Yang, X., Lacey, E., & Barker, S. C. (2003). A survey of bacterial diversity in ticks, lice and fleas from Australia. Parasitology Research.

Poo-Muñoz, D. A. (2016). Fleas and Ticks in Carnivores From a Domestic–Wildlife Interface: Implications for Public Health and Wildlife. Journal of medical entomology, 53(6).

Sonenshine, D. E., & Roe, R. M. (Eds.). (2013). Biology of ticks volume 2. Oxford University Press.

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