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

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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 mainly at night and staying hidden during the day. But they do leave behind evidence of their existence.

Because of this, spotting the start of a bed bug infestation can be easily missed…unless you know EXACTLY what signs 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 signs and symptoms of a growing bed bug problem are at first or why they suddenly appeared. 

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

Another way is if you’ve brought used furniture into your home and they were hiding inside any cracks, especially if it’s a wooden item.

Perhaps you brought one in that was on 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 to look for.  Steps must be taken immediately to get rid of them if you find ANY evidence of the following:

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

  • Bed bug fecal matter can be found in their harborage areas. 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 for a meal, digested, and excreted!

Red, Itchy bites/welts

  • 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 reacts 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.

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

    Some skin conditions and infections 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 blood stain on your bed 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 bed bugs inject you with an anticoagulant, so your blood flows freely and does not clot.

Cast/shed bed bug shells

  • Look for shed skins (exoskeleton) that bed bug 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, 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.
  • Bed bug eggs can be hard to spot as they are extremely small. They are laid in clusters but can be laid singularly.
  • Just like the exoskeletons, bed bugs and the eggs are usually found on mattress seams, the box spring, behind the headboard, and cracks in the bed frame. The adult female uses 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 musty or sweet odor.  Bed bugs release alarm pheromones when they get disturbed which is when the smell becomes noticeable, especially in heavy infestations. 

The smell of bed bugs often differs from person to person, so depending on your sense of smell bed bugs might smell 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. 

It’s essential to be sure because there are numerous other bugs that look like bed bugs, so you don’t want to be paying for treatment for the wrong pest. 

This not only allows the bed bug infestation to grow, making it harder to eradicate, but it also means you’ve wasted a lot of money. 

We’ve got a great range of bed bugs 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 in color, 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?

Bed bugs have a tough outer layer (called the exoskeleton) made of a type of protein called chitin. The exoskeleton is a hard covering for a reason, and that is because it protects the bed bug from physical damage and predators.

Because their exoskeleton 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 bed bug skin shells will be found in infestations. 

Are Bed Bugs Easy to Squish?

Yes, bed bugs are easy to squish and can be squashed with your fingers. Despite having a rigid shell, it really is no match when being crushed by a person. 

However, you might want to think twice before doing so, especially if the bed bug has recently had a blood meal, as it will have your blood inside it, which 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 bed bugs being squashed by you in your sleep after they have fed.  

Unfortunately, squishing any bed bugs you find doesn’t mean you’ve found and killed them all, and they are now gone – far from it.

We took the photo below when treating a bed bug infestation, and it 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?

I took the following picture as it shows 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 is found in more severe infestations where 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.
  • Pearl-white in color, so 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 squashed 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 to look will help you to stop the population from growing and getting out of control.

As bed bugs feed on human blood, they like to stay close to their food supply. To find them, you’ll need to carry out a visual inspection of where you sleep, so that is the bed and the mattress, or it could be your couch. Both will provide these pests with plenty of places to live. 

You’ll want to inspect under the mattress, in the corners of the mattress and the seams, and on the piping for evidence of fecal matter and blood stains and for bed bugs, shell casings, and eggs. 

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 items 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 bed bugs 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 that as it is of a bed bug on the ceiling. 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 go looking for somewhere else to hide. 

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?

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 the bed bugs yourself, or

Option 2: call in a licensed pest control exterminator experienced in treating bed bug infestations.

If you’re just starting to notice the above common signs and feel confident that you can treat 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 put in the work.

Our guide gives you the complete process to follow, but to give you some idea of what you’ll need to do includes:

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 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 experienced in dealing with bed bug infestations.

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

Both are effective methods that will kill 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 a potential bed bug problem must be dealt with immediately.