Written by: A O’Neill, Licensed Pest Control Technician

How do you know if you have bed bugs?

Often, the early signs of bed bugs go undetected at the beginning of an infestation as there are so few bed bugs or eggs to be found.

It also doesn’t help that they are nocturnal pests, feeding on human blood mainly at night and staying hidden during the day. But they do leave behind evidence of their existence.

Because they are nocturnal and are so good at hiding, spotting the start of an infestation can be easily missed unless you know EXACTLY what bed bug signs and symptoms to look for, such as stains on your sheets or itchy bite marks appearing on your body. Other early indicators to watch for are detailed below.

Early signs of bed bugs are found on mattress seam - Cluster of immature bed bugs
Immature bed bugs on a mattress seam

Unknowingly bringing bed bugs into your home

How can you tell if you have bed bugs early on? To be honest, most people have no idea what the signs of an infestation by this blood-sucking parasite are or why they suddenly appear.

So, before we look at ways to identify a bed bug problem, let’s first start by looking at how they might have found their way into your home. If you have a good idea of how you brought them in, then you’ll be able to limit the chance of reinfestation again in the future.

Examples of how these pests get into your home include staying in a hotel that has bed bugs; they usually crawl into your luggage or hide in your dirty laundry and then hitch a ride home with you.

Another common entry route is through used furniture being brought into your home, where they are hiding inside the cracks or joints of the item, especially if it’s wooden.

Perhaps you brought one in that was on the spine of a library book, or you picked one up when you sat down when using public transport.

However it got in (it takes just one pregnant female to start an infestation), there will be several telltale early infestation signs left behind, usually starting on the mattress.

What are the first signs of bed bugs?

If you suspect an infestation, you must take immediate action to eliminate it if you notice ANY of the following:

Small dark brown/black fecal stains on sheets, pillowcases, and mattress

  • Bed bug excrement can be found wherever bed bugs hide. The fecal droppings are dark brown or black and are the size of a small dot. The dropping can bleed into fabrics such as bed sheets and nightwear and will look similar to smeared ink.
  • Bed bug fecal spotting can also be found clustered on the headboard and box spring. As the infestation grows, their droppings will be found on the baseboards behind the bed and on any bedside furniture.
  • As horrible as it sounds, these dark spots are your blood—the bed bug has taken a blood meal, digested it, and excreted it!

Red, Itchy bumps/welts on your skin

  • Bed bug bites can cause itchy red welts or bumps that appear overnight on areas of exposed skin, such as the face, arms, shoulders, hands, back, or anywhere else on the body not covered when in bed.

  • Not everyone has an allergic reaction to bed bug bites or develops itchy and inflamed skin and it isn’t uncommon when two people share a bed, and only one shows signs of their bites.[1]  A welt on its own isn’t confirmation you have bed bugs, it’s only one indicator, and it’s not possible to say for definite as symptoms and reactions vary from person to person.  Another reason is because of how similar their bites look to other insect bites, such as mosquitoes or chiggers.

  • Some skin conditions, such as eczema, infections, and even hives, can also be mistaken for insect bites. Keep this in mind if you don’t find any other evidence of bed bugs or other pests.

Bloodstains on your PJs and sheets

  • As you move or roll onto the bug in your sleep, you might crush or squeeze it, leaving bloodstains. The bed bug becomes engorged with your blood during feeding which can then seep out if the insect is disturbed, leaving a red or rusty-colored stain or smear on your bedding or clothing.

  • There could also be stains on your PJs if you bleed at the bite area after the bed bug has finished feeding. This is because it injects you with an anticoagulant, so your blood flows freely and does not clot.

Cast/shed bed bug shells

  • Look for shed skins (exoskeletons) that the nymphs leave behind when growing through the 5 molt stages to adulthood. These cast shells tend to be found in harborage areas such as on mattress seams and piping, the box spring, and in any of the bed’s cracks and crevices. 

  • The shell looks like the bug, except it’s a translucent yellow and will be different sizes according to the nymph’s growth stage. If you find any shell casings, the infestation is past the early stages, and you’ve got a growing bed bug problem.  

Tiny, flat, reddish-brown bed bugs and their eggs

  • And, of course, check for any live bed bugs you might see crawling around, which will be unlikely during the day or in the early stages of an infestation.

  • As well as live ones, you may also come across dead bed bugs.
  • Bed bug eggs can be hard to spot as they are extremely small and are hidden away from predators. They are laid in clusters but can be laid singularly.
  • Like their exoskeletons, these bugs and their eggs are found in the usual hiding spots in the beginning stages, which are mattress seams, the box spring, behind the headboard, and in cracks in the bed frame. Female bed bugs use a glue-like substance to stick the eggs to surfaces so they cannot easily be dislodged, which gives them a better chance of hatching.

What do bed bugs look like to the human eye?

Now that we’ve covered what you’ll find at the start of a bed bug problem, let’s look at how to identify this pest so you know what it looks like. In brief, Cimex lectularius (the common bed bug) has:

  • 6 legs
  • 2 antennae
  • a flat, oval-shaped body that looks similar to an apple seed
  • no wings, just small wing pads, so they cannot fly
  • adults are a brownish-red color
  • adults grow to approximately 5 mm in length

Nymphs, which are young bed bugs, are:

  • Smaller than the adults, translucent or whitish-yellow in color, but they become darker like the adults as they progress through each molt.
  • Early-stage nymphs can be hard to spot if they haven’t recently had a blood meal because of their size and being translucent.

Identifying and knowing what bed bugs look like is essential for treatment methods, as many bugs look like bed bugs, such as carpet beetles. So you want to be sure, as you don’t want to be paying for treatment for the wrong pest.

Getting it wrong not only allows their population levels to grow, making it harder to eradicate them, but it also means you’ve wasted a lot of money.

We’ve got a great range of bed bug pictures that will help you accurately identify them throughout their life stages.

However, it’s always best to get a positive identification from a Pest Management Professional who will also tell you the effective types of treatment that will get rid of them.

reddish-brown color adult bed bug up close
Adult bed bug

Do bed bugs have a hard shell?

They have a tough outer layer (called the exoskeleton) made of a type of protein called chitin, which protects the insect from physical damage and predators.

Because their shell is rigid, it doesn’t grow as the bed bug grows from a nymph to an adult. Therefore, they need to shed their shell through a series of molts as they grow. As mentioned above, these shells will be found in their harborages and in growing infestations.

Are bed bugs easy to squish with your fingers?

Yes, bed bugs are easy to squish and can be squished with your fingers despite having a rigid shell. 

However, you might want to think twice before doing so, especially if it has recently had a blood meal, as the blood could squirt out when the bed bug is crushed, ruining clothing, bedding, or your carpet.

If you find blood on your sheets, then these could be stains from you squashing one of these insects in your sleep, as we said in the above list of signs.

Unfortunately, squishing any bed bugs you find doesn’t mean you’ve found and removed them all—far from it.

We took the photo below when treating an infestation, which shows just how messy it can be when you squish a bed bug. 

Picture of squished bed
Crushed bed bug that was full of blood as recently fed

What do bed bug eggs look like to the human eye?

  • Bed bug eggs are only 1 mm in size, so about the size of a pinhead. The size makes them almost impossible to see because they are incredibly tiny and expertly hidden away. And they blend in well against light-colored backgrounds.
Image of bed bug eggs close up hidden on cardboard
Cluster of hidden bed bug eggs Image credit: Dr. Harold Harlan/AFPMB (CC)

The following picture shows what bed bug eggs look like and all stages of the bed bug life cycle.

bed bug infestation of adults, nymphs, eggs, and shed casings
Almost translucent bed bug nymph exoskeletons with adult bed bug and fecal spots

The photo above is not of the beginning stage of an infestation, but I want to show you what a severe infestation looks like if it isn’t dealt with. You can see the small, pearly-white oblong-shaped eggs and how well they blend into the mattress and box spring.

Are bed bug eggs hard or soft when you touch them?

Bed bug eggs aren’t hard and can be squished easily. However, they are so small that the chances of spotting them early on are slim because they are so well hidden. 

If you find any eggs, there really is no point in trying to crush them as it won’t impact the infestation. Bed bugs are cryptic insects, and you can bet that there will be eggs in various other spots on the bed.

Can you smell bed bugs?

When there are only a few bed bugs, you usually won’t be able to detect any odor simply because there aren’t many yet.

Nevertheless, once the infestation starts growing, you might begin to notice a sweet or musty odor.  Bed bugs release alarm pheromones when they get disturbed, which is when the smell becomes noticeable, especially in heavy infestations. 

The smell of this pest often differs from person to person, so depending on your sense of smell, you might smell a scent similar to coriander, spoiled raspberries, almonds, or marzipan.

As the infestation grows, you might also notice a rusty, coppery odor. This is because bed bugs feed on human blood, and when our blood is no longer fresh, it has a scent that is similar to how an old copper coin smells. Again, you won’t notice this during the initial stages of the infestation, but it is something to be aware of.

Baby bed bugs to adults hiding on box spring seam
Various stages of the bed bug lifecycle from instars to adults

Where bed bugs are found hiding

By catching bed bugs early and knowing where they hide, you can treat them and prevent their population levels from growing.

As these pests feed solely on blood, they like to stay close to their food supply. To find bed bugs, perform a visual inspection of where you sleep: the mattress and the area around the bed or couch, as they provide plenty of hiding places. 

You’ll want to check mattress seams, corners, and piping, and inspect under the mattress for evidence of blood and fecal stains, as well as for live or dead bed bugs, shell casings, and eggs.

Aside from checking the bed for any warning signs, be sure to look for any tiny gaps in the bed frame and headboard, in screw heads, in the baseboards (especially near the bed area), and in furniture near the bed.

You might spot common signs of these pests in clutter underneath the bed, such as in boxes, which make ideal hiding spots. This area can be difficult for an exterminator to treat if the clutter is not removed.

Go to the where do bed bugs hide page for more information on where to inspect.

Do not start sleeping in another room or on the couch as you’ll soon have these blood-sucking pests in these areas as well – read What Should You Not Do If You Have Bed Bugs and avoid making costly mistakes.

One of the questions asked a lot is whether bed bugs crawl on walls and ceilings. The answer is yes, and the following photo proves it. However, they do not usually crawl on walls or the ceiling until the infestation has become more established and their harborage area is overcrowded, so they have to go looking for somewhere else to hide.

Bed bugs can squeeze into the tiniest of cracks as they are only the width of a credit card and can even be found under a small piece of torn wallpaper.

Close up of recently fed bed bug next to shed skin on ceiling
Recently fed bed bug next to shed skin on ceiling

Can I get rid of bed bugs on my own if I catch them early enough?

It’s easier and far less expensive to treat an infestation in its early stages. If you are sure you have bed bugs, they need to be dealt with before they become established.

You now have two options:

Option 1: do your own pest control and treat them yourself, or

Option 2: call in an experienced, licensed pest control exterminator.

If you’re just starting to notice the common early bed bug signs and feel confident you can deal with them yourself, follow our step-by-step guide to getting rid of bed bugs.

Hiring a pest control company can be costly and not always within everyone’s budget. Doing your own pest control can be challenging and requires time and patience, so you’ve got to be prepared to do the work.

Our guide gives you the complete process, and the following gives you some idea of what you’ll need to do:

Extensive vacuuming

Steam cleaning the mattress and upholstered furniture

Washing and drying bedding and clothes

Clearing out clutter

Install bed bug interceptor traps as well as mattress encasements and box spring encasements (read the review to see why SafeRest is the best encasement for bed bugs).

Early detection of bed bugs – why it’s important

Early detection means you can stop an infestation from growing but it also means your bed bug problem will be easier to treat. The cost of treating bed bugs when there are only a few of them is far less expensive than compared to when they have had the opportunity to spread.

There are also health implications to consider with a growing infestation. Along with the bites and the intense itching, they can also cause allergic reactions in some people. But probably the worst thing associated with bed bugs is the thought of them crawling on you and feeding on you while you sleep. That alone will make you want to deal with them when you spot the first indications of them.

As I’ve said before, it’s always best to hire a qualified pest management professional as soon as you see any of the early signs of bed bugs mentioned.

Treatments offered can be a heat treatment that eradicates bed bugs immediately or conventional pesticide treatments that may take several weeks to work, depending on the infestation level.

Both are effective methods that will remove the entire infestation.

I would add that if you live in an apartment or condo, then the building manager should be informed in case of a potential infestation problem.

A pest control company will more than likely be brought in as bed bugs may be able to move between apartments and infest adjoining units.

But whether you treat them yourself or leave them to a pest control professional, the early warning signs of bed bugs must be dealt with immediately.