Getting a bedbug infestation is arguably one of the worst things that can ever happen to your mattress.
Bites from these insects have been known to produce severe itching or rashes.
They will seriously reduce your sleep quality, and the longer you wait, the worse they will get.
Being able to quickly and accurately identify bedbugs is one of the most important things any homeowner can know.
Catching an infestation in its early stages can save you a huge amount of time, money, and sleepless nights, so be sure to get a good understanding of these pests before it’s too late.
What Are Bedbugs?
Many insects can look very similar to bedbugs to the untrained eye, so it’s important to know exactly what you’re looking for before you decide to call in the exterminator.
If you can manage to catch an insect that you think may be a bedbug, look for these characteristics.
Recognizing Mature Bedbugs
According to the EPA, bedbugs have a number of telltale traits.
It’s a common misconception that these insects are too small the be seen with a naked eye.
Adults are actually just under a quarter inch long, about the size of an apple seed.
They are brownish if they haven’t recently eaten, and their abdomens are round and oval-shaped.
As they fill up on a person’s blood, though, these abdomens become longer and skinnier, taking on a dark reddish color.
Bedbugs also have a beak with three segments; antennae with four segments; and short, gold-colored hairs.
They also produce an offensive, musty smell from their scent glands.
Although adult bedbugs can move very fast, they cannot fly.
Recognizing Bedbug Nymphs
Young bedbugs, called “nymphs,” are significantly harder to spot than their parents.
They’re of a similar shape, but they’re smaller and are a translucent whitish-yellow if they haven’t fed recently.
If they have fed recently, they’ll look like little red flecks.
Recognizing Bedbug Eggs
Although female bedbugs can produce hundreds of eggs over their lifetimes, these eggs are almost impossible to see on most surfaces.
They’re pearl-white, and have an eye spot in the center if over five days old.
They’re about the size of a pinhead (~1 mm).
We do have at least one thing going for us when it comes to combatting bedbugs, though.
It’s that, compared to most insects, bedbugs actually reproduce relatively slowly.
An adult female will produce about one egg per day, and while that might seem like a lot, keep in mind that a common housefly will lay over 100 eggs every day.
So while you shouldn’t take you time dealing with these things, we can at least be grateful bedbugs don’t breed quite as fast as some of their relatives.
Bedbugs vs. Fleas
Many people will often mistake bedbug bites for bites from more common insects.
And while it’s true that it’s often hard to see the difference based on bites alone, you can typically at least tell them apart from flea bites by looking at the location.
Fleas usually only bite around the ankles, and their bites have a red spot in the center.
Bedbugs, meanwhile, bite any area of skin left exposed while asleep, and their bites do not have a red spot.
Also, while bedbugs can move pretty quickly, they can’t jump nearly as high as fleas do.
Insects Commonly Confused for Bedbugs
If you’re still not sure whether the insects you’re looking at are bedbugs or not, the EPA recommends looking at one or more of the following links:
- Bat Bugs, Bedbugs and Relatives (Colorado State University)
- Bedbugs and Lookalikes (Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station)
- Is it a Bedbug, Cockroach or Carpet Beetle? (New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene)
Where Do They Live?
Bedbugs typically feed during the night, when their hosts are asleep, and because of this an early infestation is going to be based around your bed.
Some common areas they like to live in include mattresses, box springs, headboards, footboards, and bedframes.
If an infestation has gotten more serious, though, a couple common areas you might come across them include:
- In the folds of curtains
- In the seams of chairs and cushions
- In drawer joints
- In the gaps behind wall outlets
- In the space between the carpet in the wall
- In cracks around floor, window and door molding
- On any furniture within 5 to 20 feet of the bed
Note that, if a bedbug hasn’t recently eaten, it’s only about the width of a credit card.
If you have a crack anywhere in or around your bedroom that you could slide a credit card under, that’s a potential bedbug habitat.
Signs of Bedbugs
In addition to bedbugs’ physical characteristics, there are also a number of other easily identifiable signs that your home is harboring bedbugs.
Checking for Excrement
Bedbugs feed every five to seven days while they have access to a host.
The rest of the time they’re just digesting the blood, which contains a lot of excess water.
Bedbugs have to excrete this, which leaves behind clusters of black or brownish spots on infested surfaces.
Bedbug excrement can sometimes bleed onto fabric like marker ink.
According to Virginia Tech professor Dini Miller, some common places to look for bedbug fecal spots include:
- On the mattress seams and along the tag
- At electrical outlets
- Behind the headboard
- Along the tops of baseboards
- At the edge of carpeting
- On the wooden frame of a box spring
Checking for Blood
If you have a bedbug infestation, you may also notice red or rusty-colored spots on your sheets.
These are the result of either your own blood or crushed bedbugs.
(And by the way, good luck cleaning those sheets!)
Checking for Molted Skins
Like all insects, bedbugs are covered in a hard outer layer called an exoskeleton.
They must shed this exoskeleton in order to grow larger, which happens a total of five times over a bug bug’s life.
Although they do stop molting once they reach maturity, the majority of bedbugs in any given infestation are always going to be in an immature stage.
In larger infestations, you’ll find thousands of nymphs’ molted skins.
They’ll be translucent, and the same shape and size as the bedbugs that produced them.
Some common places to look for molted bedbug skins include:
- Stuck to personal belongings
- In the junction between the ceiling and the wall
- Along mattress seams
- Behind headboards
- Along baseboards
Identifying Bedbug Bites
Although bites are probably the single biggest reason why we hate bedbugs so much, individuals’ responses to bedbug bites vary widely from person to person.
Some people may have severe reactions, while others might not even notice they have bedbugs until others bring it to their attention.
This means that looking for bites probably isn’t the most effective way to tell if you have an infestation.
Still, though, it’s helpful to know what to look for.
What They Look Like
Bedbugs come after the parts of the body left exposed in sleep—typically the arms, legs, shoulders, neck, hands, and face.
If you experience new itching in these areas upon waking in the morning, there’s a good chance you have bedbugs.
The bites are often clustered in a small area, but they can also come in lines or zigzag patterns.
On some people, they’ll appear similar to bites from other insects, like mosquitos or chiggers.
Some might not experience anything, while for others, it might take a couple days before they start itching.
Certain people may experience rashes or even hives.
If this happens to you, be sure to avoid scratching as much as possible, and contact a medical professional if the reaction persists.
How Bedbugs Do It
Unless they are exceptionally hungry, bedbugs usually feed during the night, when you are motionless and asleep.
They’re somewhat paranoid about you waking up or themselves getting crushed, so they’ll usually move to a different part of the body if you shift in your sleep during the 3 to 12 minutes it takes them to feed.
Because the swelling and irritation many people experience from the bites is the result of an anticoagulant in the insects’ saliva, when bedbugs do decide to change positions, it results in more swelling and itching for you.
Remember, though—just because you have ten bites on your body, doesn’t necessarily mean there are ten bedbugs biting you.
Potential Dangers of Bites
Bedbugs are not known to carry any human diseases, so the main concerns during an infestation are just irritation and loss of sleep.
Some people are allergic to the bites, so their symptoms will be substantially more serious.
For most people, though, secondary infection is the biggest health concern.
Be sure to keep your bites clean and sanitized, and don’t scratch them raw.
Consult your physician if you think you might be developing an infection.
With all this information in mind, you should be more than ready to recognize any bedbug infestation.
If you’re confident with your diagnosis and think it’s time to act, check out our next article on how to best deal with bedbugs!