Solved! 5 Early Signs of Bed Bugs to Never Ignore

Think bed bugs might be lurking in your mattress? If so, they’ll need to be dealt with sooner rather than later. Read on to learn about the early signs of bed bugs.

By Evelyn Auer | Updated Jan 31, 2023 1:54 PM

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Early Signs of Bed Bugs

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Q: After coming back from a recent vacation, I’ve noticed some bites on my arms and legs. I’m worried that I could have picked up bed bugs from my hotel! I’ve only been back for a week, so I don’t think I have a full-on infestation yet, but what are some of the early signs of bed bugs? 

A: Your instinct to be concerned about bed bugs is a good one. While bed bugs have a reputation for inhabiting cheap hotels and dirty homes, the reality is that what attracts bed bugs are human or animal hosts, not dirt. Bed bugs are nocturnal and prefer to stay out of sight, so if there aren’t many of them, they may be hard to spot. However, there are plenty of early signs of bed bugs to find upon close inspection.

On the positive side, bed bug bites can take several days to show up, so it’s possible that you were bitten without bringing the pests home. Still, it’s a good idea to check for evidence of bed bugs right away so that the problem does not turn into a major infestation. Read on to find out how to know if you have bed bugs.

Live bed bugs are a clear sign of an infestation. 

One of the most apparent early signs of a bed bug infestation is spotting live bugs. A female bed bug can lay 1 to 7 eggs per day for about 10 days after a single meal, and most eggs hatch within 6 to 9 days. To put it briefly, bed bug populations can grow rapidly, so seeing even one live bug means there’s likely more that you can’t see. While bed bugs can be hard to identify due to their size, there are some reliable tips for identifying them.

Adult bed bugs usually take on the following characteristics:

  • They measure 5 to 7 millimeters long (about the size of an apple seed).
  • If they have not recently fed, they are flat, brown, and oval-shaped.
  • They are reddish-brown and swollen if they have recently fed.
  • They are sometimes odorous, creating a musty-sweet odor.

Young bed bugs look slightly different from adult bed bugs in that they are typically smaller and more translucent or whitish in color.

Early signs of bed bugs include rust-colored stains and the presence of pale-yellow skins.

Next to spotting live insects, the presence of skins or shells is the most unmistakable sign of bed bugs. Bed bugs shed their exoskeletons up to five times during their life cycle, leaving behind yellowish casings of various sizes. It’s most common to find these skins underneath cushions or in seams where bed bugs like to congregate.

how to get rid of bed bugs in a mattress

Photo: istock.com

Early bed bug stains on sheets are another sign to look for. When bed bugs finish feeding, their bodies become swollen with blood. If the bugs are accidentally crushed, blood will leach out, leaving brown or reddish stains on sheets or furniture. And since bed bugs feast on blood, their droppings also have a dark rust color that will stand out on light-colored bedding or upholstery.

Bites on the skin are another sign of bed bugs. 

If someone asks, “What are the signs of bed bugs?” it is often because they have noticed bug bites with no obvious source. In many ways, bed bug bites are not dissimilar to mosquito or spider bites. They typically appear as small bumps that itch and swell when scratched. However, one distinct feature of bed bug bites is that they often appear in groupings.

When it comes to early signs of bed bugs on skin, the bites are unique in that they don’t typically become noticeable until several days after the initial bite. Some people have no reaction to bed bugs and may never know that they have been bitten at all. Bed bugs’ saliva contains both anesthetics and anticoagulants that allow the puncture to bleed more freely and keep it from itching. This can also be another reason it’s common to find blood spots from bed bugs—their bites tend to bleed more than other types of insect bites.

Some may notice waking up in the middle of the night and feeling like something is crawling on them. If that’s the case, it’s best to monitor the skin for a few days to see if a bug bite appears.

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Bed bug eggs, while hard to see, are an early sign of bed bugs.

It’s possible to see bed bug eggs with the naked eye, but they might go unrecognized for those who don’t know what they’re looking for. Bed bug eggs are the size of a pinhead, whitish in color, and marked by a small black spot (if older than 5 days). Bed bugs most commonly lay their eggs in mattress seams, so if any eggs are spotted while changing the sheets, it’s time to call in a professional.

how to get rid of bed bugs in a mattress

Photo: istock.com

Another possible sign of bed bug infestation is the smell. 

It may come as a surprise, but bed bugs have quite a distinct smell; most describe it as musty, sweet, and even berry-like. In the early stages of a bed bug infestation, it’s uncommon to detect this odor, as it’s usually only possible to smell it when the infestation is quite large. However, if this smell is present along with other early signs of bed bugs, it can be a confirmation that there’s an infestation in the home.

A bed bug infestation carries some risk of skin infection or allergic reactions. 

Although many people experience only uncomfortable itching as a result of bed bug bites, others can have a stronger reaction. While one person may experience no reaction at all, another might suffer from excessive itching or blisters, and the area has the potential to become infected if the skin is broken from too much scratching. Those who are allergic to bed bug bites can experience hives, swelling, fever, or even difficulty breathing and anaphylaxis. Those with a large number of bites or who experience symptoms of an allergic reaction will want to see a medical professional to get relief and avoid further complications.

Bed bugs can hide in areas of the home other than the bed. 

A mattress is a classic hot spot for bed bug activity because it allows the insects easy access to their primary food sources. It is also especially difficult to get rid of bed bugs in a mattress as they can burrow deep inside and lay eggs. However, it’s worth noting that a mattress is far from the only place bed bugs can take up residence. While they tend to stick to the same hiding spot, also called a harborage, bed bugs are typically willing to travel up to 20 feet to reach their hosts at mealtime. Those who suspect that they have bed bugs will want to look for signs of bed bugs on furniture, along baseboards, and even in electrical outlets that are near the place they (or their pets) sleep. Some early-stage signs of bed bugs on walls are activity and droppings around cracks, underneath peeling wallpaper, or behind picture frames.

Early Signs Of Bed Bugs

Photo: istock.com

Some places to search for hidden bed bugs include:

  • Near or nestled in mattress piping
  • Near the mattress tag
  • In cracks of the bed frame or headboard
  • In seams of upholstered furniture
  • In the folds of curtains
  • Underneath loose wallpaper or hanging tapestries
  • In drawer joints
  • At the juncture of the wall and baseboard or ceiling
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Those concerned about bed bugs will want to perform a thorough inspection. 

Bed bugs emerge at night to feast and choose harborages that it’s not likely to find on accident. Here’s how to check for bed bugs:

On bedding and mattresses, look for:

  • Reddish or brownish-red stains
  • Bed bug excrement, which looks like a dark spot smaller than the size of a pinhead
  • Pale yellow skins or shells about 1 millimeter in length
  • Live bed bugs

Other places to examine for live bed bugs or eggs include:

  • Seams of upholstered furniture
  • Folds of curtains
  • Joints of drawers
  • Under wallpaper or wall hangings
  • Where the wall and ceiling or wall and baseboard meet

Although the eggs may be more difficult to see, check the mattress for bed bug eggs, which are white and only about 1 millimeter in size. If a live bed bug does make an appearance, expect to see a tiny seed-shaped insect that is red or brown in color. Bed bugs are sometimes mistaken for fleas or beetles, but they can be distinguished by their relatively flat bodies and lack of wings. If any of these signs are present, it’s time to start making a plan for how to get rid of bed bugs.

Bed bugs are best treated by a professional exterminator. 

After spotting the first signs of bed bugs, it’s a good idea to call a pest control specialist as soon as possible. Bed bugs are not likely to go away on their own, and they will continue to reproduce as long as they have access to a food source. While it’s not impossible to get rid of bed bugs yourself—some are able to mitigate the problem with one of the best bed bug traps or chemical sprays—bed bug exterminators have foolproof methods to eliminate the pests for good. Starting costs for bed bug treatment are only about $300, which may be well worth it compared with the time and stress of trying various DIY methods until one eventually works. Many of the best bed bug exterminators, like Orkin and Terminix, also guarantee their services, meaning that if the bed bugs return, exterminators will apply the treatment again at no additional cost.

Bed Bug Treatment Cost Types of Treatment

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It’s possible to prevent bed bug infestations.

Bed bugs are a nuisance that most people dread. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to prevent bed bug infestations. While there are many ways to get bed bugs, they often enter homes by hiding in the folds and seams of clothing. After returning from a vacation, make a point of throwing all laundry into the washing machine and inspecting suitcases for bugs before putting them away. Rented or secondhand furniture is another common vehicle for bed bugs, so it’s best to check these items thoroughly before bringing them home. In shared buildings and apartments, bed bugs can sometimes sneak in from another unit. One way to prevent this is to install door sweeps and seal gaps in walls and windows with caulk. Lastly, letting clutter accumulate is a way to provide potential hiding spots for any number of insects, so keeping floors clear and vacuuming regularly may prevent the presence of one or two bed bugs from becoming an infestation.

FAQs

Q. Can I have bed bugs and not see them?

Bed bugs hide themselves well, so it’s possible to have bed bugs and not see them. Many won’t see bed bugs until the infestation is severe.

Q. What evidence do bed bugs leave behind?

Bed bugs bite, and the presence of itchy bites on your body can often be the first sign of infestation. Other signs that bed bugs leave behind include molted shells, fecal spots, or rust-colored stains.

Q. How long does it take to realize you have bed bugs?

A bed bug bite often doesn’t show up immediately after someone is being bitten—it often takes a day or two before the itchy welt appears. Bed bugs can also go long periods without feeding, and it takes 7 weeks from them to go from egg to adult, so it’s possible that you don’t notice the presence of bed bugs for several days or even a few weeks.

Q. How do you check your mattress for bed bugs?

On bedding and mattresses, look for:

  • Reddish or brownish-red stains
  • Bed bug excrement, which looks like a dark spot smaller than the size of a pinhead
  • Pale-yellow skins or shells about 1 millimeter in length
  • Live bed bugs

Q. Can you see bed bugs with the naked eye?

Yes, it’s possible to see adult bed bugs with the naked eye. Young bed bugs (also called nymphs) may be harder to see.

Q. Can you live with bed bugs without knowing?

It’s possible to live for a few weeks without knowing you have bed bugs, but a serious infestation will typically become too hard to ignore. The sooner you know you have bed bugs, the better, so the infestation can get treated as quickly as possible.

Sources: Environmental Protection Agency, Nature’s Mace, Centers for Disease Control, American Academy of Dermatology Association, Virginia.gov

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