Contributed by: Tim Best
Updated on: March 10, 2023
Bed bugs are a nasty and uncomfortable problem. Signs and symptoms of bed bugs can be hard to detect at first, and even trickier to treat. To the untrained eye, bed bug bites can be confused with those of other biting insects. Read on to learn more about how to find and identify the early signs of bed bugs and when to seek professional help for bed bugs.
How to find and identify bed bugs
Bed bug signs
If you're trying to spot signs of bed bugs, start in the bedroom. Bed bugs have many hiding places, but tend to congregate near where their (often human or, in some cases, household pet) host sleeps. This is typically how the aggregations will start to form. To spot bed bugs, here are some areas to check in your bedroom:
Bed bug identification
Adult bed bugs can be seen with the naked eye—no equipment is required. Mature bed bugs are about the size of an apple seed (approximately five millimeters). They are reddish-brown, wingless and flat, although they swell up like a torpedo after a blood feeding. When that happens, they change to reddish brown in color.
Immature bed bugs are categorized by one of the five immature stages as they approach adulthood. They can also be seen by the naked eye, though the bed bugs in their youngest stage are very difficult to spot. Bed bug eggs are even smaller and much harder to see but can provide another sign to tip you off to their presence. Eggs are pearly white, found in clusters and are about one millimeter long.
Bed bug aggregations
Bed bugs are often clustered together near where their human host sleeps. Bed bugs from all stages of development (from young nymphs to adults) comprise these aggregations. For this reason, these aggregations may include bed bugs of various shapes and sizes. Among these clusters, remains of exoskeletons (bed bug shells), feces and egg castings accumulate.
A variety of conditions may attract bed bugs and cause them to cluster. Those conditions may include:
Clusters can be found around wood framing like that around a closet door, inside chipped paint indentations, around baseboards, curtain rods, air conditioners and personal belongings.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to know if you have bed bugs, especially in the early stages of a bed bug infestation. And despite the rising occurrences, many people still don't know what a bed bug even looks like.
However, if you know the right place to look, you may be able to spot bed bugs.
7 early signs of bed bugs
Here are seven easy signs to help you discover if you have a bed bug problem. While these signs may be good indicators that you have bed bugs inhabiting your home, enlisting the aid of a qualified pest professional can help you confirm an infestation and help you treat your bed bug problem.
Sign #1: Bed bug bites
People don't often consider bed bugs until they've left their mark. The appearance of flat, red welts in zigzag lines or small clusters may be a sign that bed bugs have been having a blood meal at the expense of their human hosts. Bed bugs can also leave bites in straight rows.
Although they don't spread disease-causing pathogens to humans via their bites alone, their bites are quite irritating and scratching them can lead to bleeding and a secondary infection. However, they largely do not pose a major health concern in most cases – but are certainly a nuisance and unwanted presence.
Should you find yourself developing those itchy welts while laying in bed sleeping (or trying to sleep), it's possible bed bugs are the problem.
Learn more about how to identify bed bug bites.
Sign #2: Blood stains
Bed bugs are ectoparasites, meaning they live on the outside of their host and feed on its blood. After bed bugs feed on humans, they'll leave behind blood stains resembling small rust spots. They feed between five to seven days whenever a host is present, so if you see signs of bloodstains on your sheets or pajamas, it may be another sign of bed bugs.
Sign #3: Fecal spots
Another sign of bed bugs is liquid waste, which they typically leave a trail of wherever they go. Bed bug fecal spots differ from blood stains. Since bed bugs generally feast on the blood of their hosts, the fecal stains from the insects may not be tinged with the color of blood. Fecal spotting tends to resemble smears or stains, which are dark brown or even black, because the blood has been digested and excreted.
Sign #4: Bed bug shells or molted skins
Another way to tell if you have bed bugs is to look out for empty shells that may present where bed bugs cluster and feed. Bed bugs grow with each blood meal on the way to maturity. In doing so, they shed their exoskeletons or shells to grow larger. This process is called molting. The molting process (called ecdysis) leaves this telltale bed bug evidence behind.
Each bed bug will molt five times as they progress through each of the five immature stages. At each immature stage, the bug molts after a blood meal.
Bed bugs shed only after they complete a blood feeding at each of the first five stages of their lives. Depending on the availability of food (i.e., blood sources) and temperature, each stage lasts approximately one week under ideal conditions. If conditions are too cold or food is not readily available, each molt and subsequent shedding can take longer.
Where bed bug infestations grow large, there will be hundreds if not thousands of tiny molted skins left behind, regardless of the duration of the infestation. These shells look almost identical to the bed bug itself but are actually translucent upon closer inspection. They also appear in different sizes due to the different life stages.
When you find bed bug skins, stop your search immediately. Continuing the search or cleaning up can disturb the living bugs, causing them to scatter and hide. This potentially spreads the infestation to other parts of your home. Instead, call Terminix® to get rid of bed bugs and their dirty skins.
Sign #5: Bed bug eggs
Immature bed bugs are categorized by whichever of the five stages they're currently in. They can also be seen by the naked eye, though the bed bugs in the youngest stage are very difficult to spot. Eggs are even smaller and much harder to see but can provide another sign of bed bug presence. Eggs are pearly white, found in clusters and are about one millimeter long, which is almost as thick as a dime.
Sign #6: Unpleasant, musty odor
A strong, unpleasant, musty odor like that of a wet towel is another possible bed bug symptom. Bed bugs release pheromones, and when in large numbers, the smell can be quite strong. Should you find your bedroom smelling like a dirty locker room, you may want to perform an inspection.
Sign #7: Live bed bugs
Perhaps the most difficult sign to spot is seeing live bed bug activity firsthand. They are not typically active during daylight hours. Not only do they come out at night, but they emerge under a particular set of circumstances. Bed bugs are attracted to sleeping humans due to the carbon dioxide emitted while sleeping, as well as other biochemical signals humans give off while asleep. These chemical cues give bed bugs an “all clear" sign to come out and get an easy blood meal from sleeping, human prey. Live bed bug activity and seeing these creepy critters in action might be harder to spot than the after-effects of their feeding. However, if you're a night owl or can't sleep although your partner is sleeping soundly next to you, that might increase the odds of seeing live bed bugs emerge to feed.
What to do if you spot signs of bed bugs
Since it's possible to go for long periods without being aware you have a bed bug infestation, knowing the key bed bug symptoms and how to find these pests will go a long way towards combating them.
Once you suspect you have an infestation on your hands and find yourself wondering, "what do I do if I have bed bugs?", remember that the main goal is to end the infestation as soon as possible. Unfortunately, bed bugs are very difficult to get rid of. Once they've established their presence in your home, they typically require a strategic approach by a bed bug control professional who will often use multiple methods to help tame the infestation.
That's why it's essential to contact a professional who's knowledgeable and trained in time-tested bed bug control methods to inspect your home and help determine an appropriate course of action. Terminix® has the experts you need. Reach out today for a quote to help get rid of bed bugs in your home.