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

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

How do you know if you have bed bugs?

The early signs of bed bugs at the beginning of an infestation often go undetected as there are few bed bugs or eggs to find.

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.

Spotting the start of bed bugs in your home can be easily missed unless you know EXACTLY what signs and symptoms to look for, and where! And you will find out what these are below.

What are the first signs of bed bugs?

How can you tell if you have bed bugs early? Most people have no idea what the early signs of an infestation are, or why they suddenly appear.

There are lots of ways these pests can get into your home. For example, if you have recently stayed in a hotel that has bed bugs, they might have gotten into your luggage hiding in your dirty laundry, and hitched a ride home with you.

Another common way you can get them in your home is if you’ve bought used furniture and they were hiding inside cracks or joints, especially if it’s a wooden item.

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

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

As soon as you suspect an infestation, steps must be taken immediately to get rid of them if you detect ANY evidence of the following:

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

  • Bed bug excrement can be found in their hiding places which is the bed or anywhere else you sleep. It is the size of a small dot that can bleed into fabric such as your bed sheets and nightwear and will look similar to smeared ink.

  • Bed bug fecal spotting can also be found 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 it for a 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 on exposed skin areas, such as the face, arms, shoulders, hands, back, or anywhere else on the body not covered when in bed.

    You might not realize you have this pest at first, as not everyone has an allergic reaction to bed bug bites or develops itchy and inflamed skin.[1] 

    Unfortunately, it’s not possible to say for definite if the welt is a bed bug bite 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.

    The welts on their own should not be used as a definite bed bug indicator.

    Additionally, it isn’t uncommon for two people to share a bed, and only one shows signs of their bites.

    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 insect in your sleep, you might crush or squeeze it, leaving bloodstains. The bed bug becomes engorged with your blood after feeding that can then seep out if the insect is disturbed, leaving you with a rusty-colored stain on your bed or clothing.
  • There could also be stains on your PJs if you bleed at the bite area after it 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 before they mature. These 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 bed bug shells look like the insect itself, except they are translucent-yellow and will be different sizes according to their nymph’s growth stage. If you find any shell casings, you’ve got a growing infestation.  

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. 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 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.

Can you smell bed bugs?

In the early stages of an infestation, you usually won’t be able to detect any odor simply because there aren’t many bed bugs.

Nevertheless, once the infestation starts growing, you might begin to notice a sweet or sweet odor.  They 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.

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

What do bed bugs look like to the human eye?

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 so you don’t pay for treatment for the wrong pest. Getting it wrong not only allows their population levels to grow, making them harder to eradicate, 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.

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

In brief, bed bugs have:

  • 6 legs
  • 2 antennae
  • flat, oval-shaped bodies that look similar to an apple seed
  • no wings, 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, but become darker like the adults as they progress through each molt.
  • Nymphs can be hard to see if they haven’t recently had a blood meal because of their size and being translucent.
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 nymph to adult. Therefore, they need to shed their shell through a series of molts as they grow. These shells will be found 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 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.

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 which shows 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?

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

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

This is not the beginning stage of a bed bug 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.

  • 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)

Are bed bug eggs hard to the touch?

No, bed bug eggs aren’t hard and can be squished easily. However, they are so small that the chances of finding them in the early stages are slim as 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.

Where bed bugs hide

Catching bed bugs early and knowing where they typically hide will help you to stop the population from growing and getting out of control.

As these pests feed solely on blood, they like to stay close to their food supply. To find bed bugs, you’ll need to carry out a visual inspection of where you sleep, which includes the mattress and around the bed, or couch, as they provide them with plenty of hiding places. 

You’ll want to check mattress seams, corners, piping, and underneath the mattress for signs of bed bugs, shells, and eggs, as well as blood and fecal stains.

As well as checking the bed, be sure to look in any tiny gaps in the bed frame and headboard, in screw heads, the baseboards (especially near the bed area), and 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.

For detailed instructions on where to inspect, go to the get rid of bed bugs page.

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?

Catching bed bugs early means it’s easier and far less expensive to treat a mild case of bed bugs than a severe one. So, 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 to follow, 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

Installing 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).

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 it to a pest control professional, the early warning signs of bed bugs must be dealt with immediately.