Bed Bugs: What They Look Like and How to Get Rid of Them

By Kealia Reynolds
bed bug top view

Unfortunately, most people discover bed bugs only after they’ve been bitten. Bed bugs feed at night when you’re asleep—often without detection. They’ll eat for up to 10 minutes, making multiple bites in the process, then go back into hiding. But what do bed bugs look like and how can you get rid of them? Find out what bed bugs look like, how to recognize a bed bug infestation, what steps to take to get rid of them, and how to prevent them from entering your home in the first place.

What do bed bugs look like?

Adult bed bugs are wingless and have flat, oval-shaped bodies. They are typically 6–10 mm in length—about the size and shape of an apple seed. Usually brown to brownish-red, bed bug coloring shifts to dark red after a blood meal (feeding on a host’s blood). Note: a blood meal is needed between molting cycles.

Bed bugs hide in cracks in the wall, under your bed, and even inside your mattress. The best evidence of an infestation is a bed bug, whether it’s alive or dead. But there are other signs to look for to confirm that bed bugs have entered your house.

Signs of a bed bug problem

Here are six ways to determine if you have a bed bug problem:

  1. Physical evidence—Bed bugs like to hide where you sleep. Lift up your mattress to see if you can locate and trap one. Search your mattress and box spring, behind the bed frame and headboard, in upholstery crevices, and in carpeting.
  2. Molted exoskeletons—As bed bugs move from their larval stage to adulthood, they shed a translucent, light-colored exoskeleton or shell. If you spot the left-behind shells on your box spring or around your room, it’s a sign of a growing bed bug population—take action immediately.
  3. Fecal stains—Another alternative is to check for evidence of excrement, which look like small black or brown stains or tiny red or black mounds.
  4. Bites—Bed bug bites are often mistaken for mosquito bites. Because bed bugs feed by biting multiple sites in close proximity to one another, a long series of bites might indicate bed bugs rather than mosquitoes. If you suspect the bites come from bed bugs, the best thing to do is to locate a bed bug—alive or dead—and bring with you to any doctor’s appointment. Bites by themselves may not be sufficient evidence.
  5. Active monitors—You can install an active monitoring system to detect bed bugs—for a price. Monitors secrete carbon dioxide which attracts bugs to the device—allowing it to identify an existing infestation. Some monitors also include traps or insecticide designed to kill bed bugs.
  6. Professional diagnosis—A pest control technician is familiar with the signs of a bed bug infestation and can quickly identify if your home is infested. Then, they can create a treatment plan.
Bed bug bites on a child

Identifying bites

A bed bug bite will look like a red, swollen bump with a dark center. Bites can be in a line or grouped together, with blisters and hives at the bite site. Bites can happen anywhere on the body, but they commonly appear on areas of the body that are exposed when sleeping, like hands, arms, legs, and parts of the face. Bed bug bites are often itchy and may burn.

Bites may become slightly swollen and look similar to mosquito or flea bites. Bed bug bites will appear in groupings or in a straight line, while mosquito bites are more sporadic, and flea bites are typically isolated to lower legs and ankles.

Some people aren’t allergic to bed bug bites and won’t show visible signs of being bitten. If you do react to the bites, you might not notice them right away, as some appear a couple of days after the initial bite occurs.

Treating bites

Bed bug bites will typically resolve within a couple of weeks if treated properly. Here’s how to treat a bite:

  1. Wash—Clean skin with soap and warm water. If you’ve developed an infection, apply a topical antibacterial gel or cream.
  2. Apply cream—To prevent irritation, apply an anti-itch cream or calamine lotion.
  3. Oral medication—If the itching is not soothed from anti-itch cream, try an oral antihistamine like Benadryl.
  4. Ice—An ice pack wrapped in a towel placed on the site of the bites can help ease itching and burning sensations and reduce swelling.

How to get rid of bed bugs

After identifying an infestation, take steps to get rid of these pests immediately. Not only will they continue to bite, but they’ll also increase histamine levels in a home, which can cause rashes and respiratory problems.

Though there are multiple methods for controlling bed bugs, be aware that resolving this situation will take time and patience. Bed bug populations multiply quickly—female bed bugs lay 1–3 eggs each day and 200–500 eggs in their lifetime. So the sooner you take action, the better. Follow these tips to eliminate bed bugs quickly.

  1. Identify the problem—The first step in dealing with a bed bug infestation is proper identification. If you are renting, notify your landlord. Not only do landlords have a responsibility to participate in treating an infestation, but they’ll want to know if other adjacent units are at risk.
  2. Develop a strategy—Draft an action plan of the steps you’ll need to take. Take detailed notes, marking days and times of each treatment, should you need to refer to it later.
  3. Prevent the infestation from growing—Anything that you remove from your room needs to be placed in a sealed plastic bag and treated for bed bugs. Anything that can’t be treated should be placed in a sealed bag until bed bugs perish—this could be as long as a year.
  4. Prepare for treatment—Regardless of whether you try to DIY your own pest control or you hire professionals, here is how to prepare for treatment against bed bugs.
  5. Kill and exterminate—You have chemical and non-chemical options to kill and exterminate adult bed bugs. Some are more useful and effective than others.
  6. Evaluate the issue—Even after you’ve effectively eliminated bed bugs, you’ll need to confirm that you’ve killed them all and extracted their eggs. Check all over your home, specifically in beds and along baseboards, at least every week.
Young woman pulls clean laundry from the washing machine

Active steps you can take to prevent bed bugs

  • Do laundry—Wash your bed sheets and mattress pads in the hottest water possible. If you’ve discovered bites on skin, avoid chemical-heavy detergents to prevent further irritation. Heat treat clothing, bedding, and other items that can withstand your dryer on its hottest setting for at least 30 minutes. Store the cleaned items in sealed plastic bags identified as clean until the infestation is eliminated.
  • Clean your furnitureVacuum floors, mattress seams, and other furniture to remove bed bugs, exoskeletons, fecal droppings, and eggs. Empty the vacuum immediately after every use—seal the vacuum bag and throw it out in an outdoor trash bin. Steam cleaners can be used as well—as long as they reach temperatures of more than 115℉ for a sustained period of time. Make sure the settings are such that the force of the steam doesn’t launch adult bed bugs or their eggs out of hiding places and around the room.
  • Cold treatment—Unlike laundry or steam-cleaning, which use heat to kill bed bugs, you can also use cold treatment to kill bed bugs. Place any infested items—sheets, mattress pads, clothing, etc.—in sealed plastic bags and then into your freezer. Your freezer will need to be set at 0℉ or below, and you’ll need to leave all items there for at least four days at that temperature.
  • Use chemical sprays—Spray the joints of your bed frame, headboard, and footboard with a contact spray and residual spray. Contact spray will kill bed bugs on contact and residual spray will kill any remaining bed bugs over several weeks.
  • Create a safe place to sleep—Don’t choose to sleep in another room. If you do, the bed bugs will follow. And then you’ll have multiple rooms in your house with an infestation. Instead, isolate your bed and mattress from the rest of the house and make your bed an island.
  • Contact pest control—Hiring a professional pest control to help deal with a bed bug infestation can be an effective method. When selecting a company, verify licenses and certifications, ask for written estimates, and ask how they’d plan to treat the infestation. It’s always a good idea to call a few companies to compare.

Preventative measures to keep bed bugs away

Bed bugs come into your home through multiple ways, including:

  • Used furniture or clothes—When you buy used, there’s a risk that it comes from an infested home and contains bed bugs or their eggs. Check for the common signs of an infestation. If you purchase used clothes, bring them home in a sealed bag and immediately launder them.
  • Guests—Unfortunately, your house guests might accidentally bring bed bugs into your home.
  • Your travel—If you travel, you may risk bringing bed bugs home with you. Some hotels have bed bug infestations. Every time you stay at a hotel or a short-term rental, check for signs of infestation, or look at customer reviews. Alert a manager or landlord immediately if there are signs of bed bugs.

Here are more preventative steps you can take to combat potential bed bug infestations.

  • Isolating your bed—Turn your bed into an island—moving it at least six inches away from the wall and any other furniture. If it’s not raised on a frame, purchase one. Tuck hanging sheets under the mattress. You can also purchase bed bug interceptors and install on the legs of your bed’s frame.
  • Vacuuming throughout your home—This will disturb bed bugs and get rid of some of them.
  • Cleaning your house regularly—While clutter doesn’t cause bed bugs to appear, it makes it easier for them to hide when they’re not feeding. Clean your house regularly to prevent an infestation.
  • Inspecting your home on a periodic basis—After service calls, trips, or guest visits, check beds and furniture crevices to catch an infestation before it grows.

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