Bed bugs are parasitic bloodsuckers found all around the world, anywhere humans — their favorite snack — can be found sleeping.
Thanks in part to an increase in frequent global travel, bed bug infestations in developing countries have been rising significantly since the 1980s, now considered America’s #1 pest. Cleanliness is no reason to let down one’s guard — bed bugs will cozy up in a 5-star hotel just as readily as they will a cheap motel. Once nestled, they can survive for up to a year without eating.
Though they pose no deadly health hazard, bed bugs can cause extreme anxiety and stress to those afflicted by them — up to inducing delusional parasitosis, whose sufferers are convinced of insect infestations that exist only in their minds.
All told, it’s much better to be proactive about bed bugs before an infestation grows around you. Learn how you can identify these insects and actively prevent bringing them into your home.
Signs of Bed Bugs
Bed bug infestations are notoriously difficult to early on. Because the bugs are so good at hiding and tend to only come out at night, having a pest control professional catch one out and about in unlikely. It doesn’t help that they’re a very small bug and it’s impossible to tell with certainty if a bug bite is from a bed bug or not. For both average person and trained expert, it can be challenging to determine whether or not they’re present in a home.
That being said, if you remain vigilant and know what to look for your can prevent a small problem from turning into a rapidly into a big one. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to treat a minor infestation of bed bugs than one that’s had time to spread.
Here’s are the most common signs of bed bugs to keep an eye out for:
Bug bites are usually the first sign someone finds when they’re dealing with a bed bug infestation. Unfortunately, there’s no clear and certain way to tell a bed bug bite from another kind of bug bite. Everyone’s skin can react differently to the bite – and some people not at all! These bites can also mistaken for skin conditions like eczema or hives.
Bed bugs seek their meals of blood at night, crawling out of their harborages (hidey-holes, to the layman) to prey on warm, slumbering bodies. They’re after exposed skin, often from the arms or ankles.
When they appear, which can sometimes take several days, it’s often in the form of swollen welts without a red spot in the center (though reddish spots may begin to appear when the swelling goes down). Bed bug bites also typically occur in a line, which is charmingly referred to as “breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Stained Sheets or Mattress
Little rusty looking spots on your sheets are a pretty good indicator of bed bug activity. These spots can be caused by crushing bugs as you sleep (not a wholly effective eradication method, sadly) or by the bed bugs excreting earlier blood meals while feasting on a new one. These dots of fecal matter are about the size of a pen tip and may bleed through the fabric like ink.
In addition to checking your sheets for these fecal spots, you should check around your mattress, headboard, baseboards, wallpaper, and other potential hiding spots throughout your bedroom for these stains.
As a reminder, a bed bug mattress cover should be used to seal in any bed bugs and prevent others from living in your mattress. These covers have a special plastic lining that bed bugs can’t move past.
Flakes on Bed or Clothing
Bed bugs go through five life stages — during which they’re called nymphs — before maturing into sexually reproductive adults. At each stage, which they advance to only after feasting, these nymphs shed their exoskeletons and become progressively darker in color. Their cast aside skins, translucent to pale yellow in color, can hang around as flakes on bedding or clothing.
Visible Adult Bed Bugs
Though the above are all helpful indicators, the only true way to identify bed bugs is to find a live one.
Adult bed bugs are flat, oval, reddish-brown, and confusingly similar in appearance to other insects like booklice and carpet beetles. They range from 4 to 5 millimeters in length (about a fifth of an inch), and they’re about as wide as a credit card, so they can hide in plenty of tiny cracks. If you manage to find them, however, you should be able to see bed bugs (and even eggs and nymphs) with your naked eye.
Some other key features of bed bugs that will let you identify them is the 6 legs, two forward antennae, and a black-dot near the rear of the bed bug. One more thing to consider – when bed bugs have not yet eaten, they look flat and circular, like the photo above. After a bed bug has eaten your blood, their abdomen gets shaped more like an oval and they’re much less flat as seen below.
Bed bugs aren’t likely to sit out in the open during the day time, but they do prefer to be within 12 feet or so of your mattress. Look for bugs in cushions, mattress, curtains, couch seams, drawers, electronics, and wall junctions. They prefer to be in dark cracks and crevices.
Your nose may help guide you as well: in great numbers, bed bugs emit a sickly sweet scent said to resemble that of rotting raspberries.
Lastly, if you determine that you do have a bed bug infestation, don’t panic. There are many effective chemicals and other methods you can use to take care of the problem. We also have a complete guide to getting rid of bed bugs.
How to Check for Bed Bugs at Home
Checking for bed bugs in your home is more of a long-game than when you’re temporarily staying somewhere. In this case we can use some products and methods that we can’t always do at a hotel to provide ongoing certainty that bed bugs aren’t present in the home.
1. Start Trapping
In order for bed bugs to live, they must feed. In order for them to feed, they need to get to a mammal to suck their blood. It stands to reason then that if a bed bug can’t get onto your bed then they’re out of luck!
You can accomplish this magic trick by using a set of bed bug traps. There’s a few different styles, but the easiest and most reliable long-term is the plastic set that go under the legs of your bed frame as seen below.
When bed bugs try to climb up the traps to get to the legs of your bed frame, they’ll end up falling into the slick pit and they’ll be unable to exit the trap. This will stop the bed bug from feeding and alert you to the problem at hand.
Other methods of trapping for bed bugs involve using a glue trap or some sort of double-sided tape around the legs of your bed which bed bugs will get stuck on when they try to get to you.
2. Vacuum Often
Frequently vacuuming your flooring and especially around the bed and floorboards is important for monitoring bed bug activity. Take a peak at what your vacuum collects to see if you can spot a bed bug, eggs, or shedded skin.
3. Change Bedding Frequently
No one loves washing their sheets and comforter, but if you frequently launder them, you can more easily check for those stain bed bugs leave behind on both sheets and bare mattress.
How to Check for Bed Bugs at a Hotel or AirBnb
As we’ll discuss again later, temporary housing like hotel rooms and AirBnB rentals are the most common way bed bugs spread throughout the world. People unknowingly bring a bed bug into an establishment, and within weeks bed bugs can infiltrate multiple rooms.
There are some very easy steps you can follow to check for bed bugs upon entering your rented room that should keep you safe, though.
1. Do Your Research
There’s no central reporting agency for bed bugs, but often times if a city or specific hotel has a large infestation, it will make local news. On your next trip, try searching “Las Vegas bed bug” or even “MGM Grand bed bugs” and see if you can find any recent reports about bed bugs. This could allow you to change your reservations or be extra vigilant on your trip.
2. No Luggage/Clothing Around the Bed Until Examined
When most people get into their hotel room, they wheel their luggage right into the room, toss their bags on the bed, and grab a change of clothes. If the room has bed bugs, you just gave them first-class tickets back to your home!
The next time you enter a hotel room do this instead –
Place your luggage and belongings inside the tub or shower. Bed bugs typically can’t climb into these surfaces and if they were already in there, it would be very obvious to see! Not to mention they’re a good ways away from the mattress.
3. Examine the Mattress
Peel back all of the covers and sheets from the mattress. Any reputable hotel or AirBnB manager will change and wash the sheets between guests, so you’re unlikely to find signs of bed bugs there if you’re just checking in. The mattress or headboard may have the signs you’re looking for, though. Use a flashlight if needed and examine all around the mattress, looking especially hard in dark cracks.
If you can help it, never bring your bags or clothes onto the bed. Bed bugs are much more likely to try to hitch a ride on your luggage than on your actual body.
Pro-tip: don’t buy luggage with a cloth exterior, get something with a hard plastic outer shell instead. Bed bugs can’t ride on plastic or get through it!
Where Bed Bugs Come From
Bed bugs are excellent hitchhikers, and as with most invasive pests, you’re in for a rough time if they invite themselves into your home. Bed bugs travel from place to place in personal items like clothing, luggage, backpacks, boxes, or other convenient hiding places. Most people ferrying these parasites about have no idea they’re doing so, which means the best way to avoid bed bugs is to avoid other people. If you don’t want to do that, you should at least be aware of some of the most likely places you’ll run into bed bugs:
With so many bags and bodies moving through them, hotel rooms are a common vector for spreading bed bugs; some experts suggest as many as 5% of hotel rooms are infested (and remember that even fancy hotels can have fancy bed bugs). You can avoid your risk of bringing bugs home with you by checking around the bed before sleeping in it, keeping your suitcase raised (or even in the tub) to defer bed bugs from crawling in, and never leaving your clothes on the floor.
One theory on the rising bed bug infestation rate suggests that it’s correlated to an increase in exchanges of second-hand furniture. Used items like mattresses, chairs, couches, and clothes — where bed bugs hang out anyway — should be carefully examined before being brought into a new building.
For this reason it’s recommended you never pick up any furniture that has been set out to the curb as trash. You never know why the owner is getting rid of it!
As hitchhikers, bed bugs know to take whatever ride they can get. They are emphatically not picky: bed bugs can infest taxis, buses, trains, ships, and airplanes alike, brought aboard by unwitting travelers. It’s recommended to avoid sitting down if you’re on a short ride, and inspect your seat carefully if you can’t.
How to Prevent Getting Bed Bugs
There’s no such thing as a vaccine for bed bugs, but being aware of how they operate is a good start to avoiding a serious infestation. In other words, know how to be diligent when traveling and know how to keep clean at home.
Though hygiene itself has nothing to do with infestations — bed bugs eat blood, not dirt — the severity of an infestation depends on how long the bugs manage to stay hidden. Reducing clutter and cleaning regularly will drop the number of effective hiding spots, as well as give you a better chance of spotting the signs of an infestation before it spreads. At minimum, that means vacuuming well around your bedroom and regularly washing (and heat-drying) your bedding. You can also buy special bed bug encasements to cover your mattress and box springs.
When in doubt, always remember the old saying: good night, sleep tight, and take the possibility of bed bugs seriously.