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How to Tell if You Have Bed Bugs [Early Warning Signs]

More often than not, it takes a long time before a person discovers they have bed bugs. These insects prefer to feed at night and remain hidden when you’re awake. You could go weeks without figuring out you have a bed bug infestation which can lead to hundreds of bed bug eggs being laid!

This is why it’s so important to catch a bed bug infestation early. Learning how to tell if you have bed bugs can save you a lot of time and money in exterminating them.

Early warning signs of a bed bug infestation include the appearance of red bites on the skin upon waking, the appearance of blood stains or brown spots on bedding, a musty scent near the bed, and seeing live bugs or their casings when changing bedding or cleaning near the bed. 

A bed bug infestation will grow and expand at a rapid rate. Spotting early warning signs of bed bugs can go a long way to controlling and eventually destroying the infestation. This guide will explore all the warning signs of bed bugs to look out for. 

5 Early Signs of a Bed Bug Infestation

Unless an infestation is widespread throughout the home, you can typically expect to find signs of bed bugs on the bed. Bed bugs can infest items like sofas or even computer chairs, but this is rare and aligns with a massive infestation. Keep an eye out for these 5 key signs.  

1. Bug Bites on Your Skin

Bed bugs are very silent and unassuming biters when they feed. What’s really creepy is that bed bugs inject a chemical in their saliva once they pierce the skin to numb the area. You will likely not feel anything for several hours, but there will always be a red bump on the skin. 

It can be tricky to immediately know if a red bump is a bed bug bite. Bed bugs are not the only pests that bite people during sleep – mosquitoes, gnats, fleas, and even spiders are also known to bite people at night.

One tip is that bed bugs are known for leaving multiple bites in a close area. They often bite in a line of 3 or 4 spaced out maybe an inch or so apart. 

It’s important to remember that not everybody reacts to bed bug bites in the same way. Most people report that the bites are itchy, while others do not itch.

Some bed bug bites cause swelling while others just appear as a small red rash or even a barely visible bump.

It’s not really possible to diagnose if you have bed bugs by looking at bites on your skin alone. It is a very good early sign of bed bugs, however. If you’re waking up with new bug bites, keep reading and check these other common signs.

2. Bloodstains on Your Sheets

The next big sign of bed bug activity is the appearance of blood stains on sheets. The stains are relatively small, and will typically be spread all over the bed or in one pattern on the bed leading to the edges. 

bed bugs on mattress

You may think you had a small cut or a pimple that popped – it’s that small of a blood smear.

There are two reasons bed bugs leave these stains. The first is that the blood may drip from your body once a bug has finished feeding. The second reason is that bed bugs expel some blood from their rectal cavity once they are crawling back to their hiding place.

The larger the colony, the larger the number of bloodstains will be on the sheets and mattress. Noticing blood stains means you need to rip off your sheets (ideally put them in a sealed plastic container or tote in case you do have bed bugs) and start looking for more stains on your mattress.

Bloodstains are almost always a firm indication that the bed is infested with bed bugs.  

3. A Musty Smell Around Your Mattress

As revolting as it may sound, bed bugs also emit a strong musty odor near the bed. The smell may resemble fruit or rotted fruit sort of aroma. 

This characteristic smell is not very common with small or medium-sized infestations. However, if an infestation is large and stretches from the bed to the nearby furniture and even the bedroom walls, this odor will be apparent as soon as you walk into the room. 

Relying on odors is not a perfect tool for detection, but this sort of smell is worth investigating, especially if the smell is contained to the mattress or box spring. 

4. Finding Brown Specks

Like blood stains, bed bugs are also known for the brown, black, or rusty-colored spots that they leave on the bed and near their harborage area. 

bed bug stains

These spots are dried excrement, a mixture of blood and the enzymes in a bed bug’s digestive tract. Much like blood stains, bed bugs leave these spots every time they are crawling away after feeding. You can find the spots on the sheets, pillowcases, the edges and seams of the mattress, and even along the edges of headboards. 

If you find a bed bug hiding area, this area will be covered in the spots, and the thicker the spots are can even help to determine the length of time of the infestation. These specks may also be on areas of the wall around the baseboards or along the edges of carpeting.

5. Finding a Bed Bug or a Casing

The life stages of a bed bug are egg, nymph, and adult. During the nymph stage, bed bugs shed their anatomy five times in a process known as molting

bed bug cycle

The exoskeleton will typically be yellow-tinted and translucent, and you can find these casings on the bed or even in areas around the bed. In a harborage area, in addition to tiny, white egg sacs, you will also see live adults and nymphs, brown specks, and several casings where nymphs have molted. 

Obviously, seeing a live bed bug is not a good sign since this is all the confirmation you need. Many people may see a bed bug if they awaken in the middle of the night. Other times, you may even see a crawling bed bug during the day if their hiding area has been disturbed. 

What To Do if You Find These Signs of Bed Bugs

Discovering that you have bed bugs is the unfortunate beginning of a tough battle. Be sure to check out our detailed guide on how you can get rid of bed bugs. In the meantime, here is a list of steps to take as soon as you find signs of the bugs. 

Find the Bed Bug Harborage

Finding evidence of bed bugs or seeing one or two bugs is not enough. You need to find the harborage area in which the bugs are hiding.

Usually, an infestation will be contained to the bed unless the problem is longer than 9 months to a year. Large infestations can stretch from the bed to the furniture, to behind the walls, and even the ceiling and other rooms in the house. 

If the bugs are just on the bed, this is ideal because it makes the removal process a little bit easier. To inspect the bed, first, start by looking in the sheets and pillowcases. Then strip the bed and check the corners and seams of the mattress.

If you find a large cluster of brown specks and a hole, this indicates that bugs are likely inside the mattress.

If you haven’t found anything there, move the mattress and check along the sides of the box spring. Carefully flip over the box spring and remove the sheath covering if necessary. Use a flashlight and check all the nooks and corners of the box spring because this is a favorite hiding spot for bed bugs. 

These pests will also harborage inside of wood and can hide in the cracks of bed frames and headboards as well. Checking the headboard can be tricky, I recommend using a good flashlight and it may be helpful to remove the headboard from the rest of the bed. Check on the backside of the headboard as well.

Bed bugs are almost always within five feet of the bed. So be sure to check all the nooks and crannies of bedside furniture (including electronics) and along the carpet edges and baseboards. 

Install a Mattress Encasement

First and foremost, you will want to make your bed unreachable from the bugs. Encasing the mattress and box spring with durable and effective bed bug-specific encasements will easily trap all the bugs and eggs inside the mattress and incapable of feeding on you.

An encasement also takes away all of the cracks and hiding places that new bed bugs not trapped inside would love to move into, and it makes spotting bed bugs on the encasement much easier since they’re typically bright white.

Leave the encasements on for at least 16 months since these bugs can live as long without feeding. 

Be sure and move the bed at least a foot from the wall since these insects will climb and crawl to reach their host. Make sure none of the bedding or bedskirt touches the floor at any point, as this could let bed bugs crawl up in the night time. 

Encasements are crucial but you will still need to protect yourself from hiding bugs elsewhere in the room. 

Install Bed Bug Interceptors

Bed bug interceptors are handy devices that are placed under the legs of the bed or sitting furniture. Bed bugs can only crawl and climb, and they reach their host by seeking out body warmth and carbon dioxide.

When bed bugs are hiding in the walls or somewhere else apart from the bed, you will need to make sure they cannot crawl up the bed legs to reach you.

bed bug trap

Interceptors work by making the outer ridges easy for bed bugs to climb up and then trapping them in a slick valley of the interceptor due to the walls being too slick for them to climb.

Your mattress and box spring needs to be encased first and the interceptors will complete securing your bed so you can sleep peacefully during bed bug treatment. 

Launder All Fabrics on High Heat

Another major first step when discovering bed bugs is laundering all fabrics in the bedroom and keeping the items sealed shut in bags or containers. Bed bugs cling to fabric and will even hide within it. 

Wash and dry all clothes in the bedroom and closet on the highest heat setting and then place the fabrics in sealed contractor bags or sealed clothes containers until the infestation is eradicated. Using heat is one of the most effective methods for killing bed bugs.

Do not forget curtains and drapes either since this can also be a harborage area. Launder drapes on high heat and be sure to inspect them frequently for bed bug activity.

Never get into bed wearing clothes that have been sitting out in the bedroom.

Inspect and Remove as Much Clutter as Possible

Having a cluttered bedroom is bad news if you discover bed bugs. This means that the bugs could be hiding anywhere within the clutter and makes for a lot of work to inspect all of it.

Be sure to inspect everything and then consider sealing all miscellaneous items inside sealed containers during the treatment process. 

It is best to have your bedroom as bare and uniform as possible when you are treating for bed bugs. If you cannot inspect all miscellaneous items, a good practice is to consider sealing all these items like books, magazines, stuffed animals, etc, inside of a container with something like a Nuvan Pro Strip. This will kill any hiding bugs after about 72 hours. 

If you use poison strips, be sure to keep treated containers away from people such as in a garage or a garage or attic.

How to Check if You Have Bed Bugs Summary

In summary, knowing what to look out for with bed bugs is useful and will help to detect an infestation early before it grows. When you take the first steps in addressing a bed bug infestation, always be sure to monitor bed bug activity throughout the entire treatment process. 

When you stop seeing bed bugs inside of an interceptor trap, this is a sign of progress. 

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Written by Wesley Wheeler

Wesley has over 10 years of residential and commercial pest control experience dealing with every kind of pest. He ran his own pest control company for 6 years and now shares his knowledge online.

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