How to Spot Early Signs of Bedbugs and Prevent an Infestation, According to Pest Experts

Most people aren't exactly excited by the presence of any kind of bug — but the idea of bedbugs in particular can cause a uniquely acute panic. Bedbug infestations have temporarily shut down clothes stores and movie theaters, and caused more than a few homeowners to seek professional treatment to remove the pests.

You could argue that the bugs cause more emotional than physical damage. The bites can be aggravating, but they don't appear to transmit any disease. Even so, they lurk in the most sacred spaces in our homes — our bedrooms — and make their presence known through those irritating bites. What's more, once they're in, they're notoriously hard to get rid of. One small study found that people who've had bedbugs can develop symptoms of emotional trauma similar to PTSD.

But while these bugs can strike fear into the hearts of many, plenty of people have no idea what bedbugs look like — or how to keep them away, or get rid of them once they've arrived. Here's how to spot and treat bedbugs, so you can hang out at home in comfort.

What are bedbugs?

Bedbugs are insects that feed on the blood of humans and other animals, says Changlu Wang, PhD, an entomologist at Rutgers University. There are actually two species of bedbugs, Dr. Wang says: the common bedbug, which appears in temperate regions, and the tropical bedbug, which appears in the subtropical and tropical regions.

What do bedbugs look like?

Bedbugs have small, flat, oval-shaped bodies and are wingless, says Ben Hottel, technical services manager at Orkin, a pest control company. "Adults do have the vestiges of wings called wing pads, but they do not fully develop into functional wings," he says. (So, if you see a suspicious bug but reassure yourself that it can't be a bedbug because it has wings, don't write it off just yet.)

Adult bedbugs are also reddish-brown in color, while young bedbugs are a tan color, Hottel says. "Full-grown bedbugs move relatively slowly and measure about ¼ inch long," he adds.

Bedbugs usually live within "close proximity to their meal, or host," says Timothy Best, a board-certified entomologist with Terminix. "Most often, this means bedbugs will be harboring in areas where we sleep and rest such as beds, recliners, or couches," he adds. Again, they eat our blood — so camping out near where we tend to be sedentary for long periods helps ensure they'll always have a snack.

What causes bedbugs?

Bedbugs show up in your home because they want to make a meal of you. "Bedbugs are believed to have inhabited caves and fed off of bats until humans started using the caves as shelter," Best says. "Over time, through varying evolutionary mechanisms, they began to feed primarily on humans over other mammals."

Bedbugs are "expert hitchhikers" and usually move from place to place when people travel, says Eric Braun, a board-certified entomologist with Ehrlich Pest Control. "Slim, flat bodies allow them to fit into the smallest spaces and stay there for long periods," he says. "This allows them to remain hidden in the seams and folds of luggage, overnight bags, folded clothes, bedding, furniture, and anywhere else they find an opportunity."

Signs of bedbugs

There are a few different ways you may spot bedbugs. "One of the most common indicators of a bedbug infestation is the telltale bite marks on the face, neck, arms, hands, or other body parts that are exposed while sleeping," Braun says. But, he adds, people react differently to bedbugs; some people may not develop any sort of reaction for up to 14 days after their first run-in with a bug, while others don't react at all.

That's why Braun says it's important to be on the lookout for these other clues there may be bedbugs lurking around:

  • The bedbugs's exoskeletons or "cast skins" that are left behind after they molt (i.e. shed their skin)
  • Live or dead bedbugs in the folds of mattresses, around box springs, and in any crack or crevice around where someone sleeps
  • Blackish poop stains that look like a black marker has been touched to a surface or tiny, black, raised bumps on a hard surface
  • Bedbug eggs, which are pearly white and look like a tiny grain of rice

How to get rid of bedbugs

Physically removing the bedbugs is the best way to go, Best says. "By this, I mean using a vacuum cleaner to physically remove the insects," he says. "Vacuuming is an often underutilized method, but the vacuum is the first tool I would reach for. By physically removing bedbugs first, you will reduce the population and limit the amount of pesticide needed."

Dr. Wang says other tricks that can help include:

  • Washing your sheets and pillowcases in hot water
  • Encasing your mattress and box springs
  • Applying steam to your bed, sofa, and other places where you rest and sleep
  • Reducing clutter around your bed and sofa where bedbugs can lurk

If you want to ensure the best chance of getting rid of your bedbug problem ASAP, though, you'll want to call in the professionals. "Because of their behavior of hiding in cracks and crevices and since some bedbug populations have developed resistance to some pesticides, it's best to leave treatment to a pest management professional," Hottel says.

How to prevent bedbugs

Hottel recommends taking the following steps to lower your risk of bringing bedbugs home:

  • Closely inspect any secondhand furniture for bedbugs before you bring it home
  • Don't bring discarded furniture into your home
  • After staying in hotels, keep your luggage in the garage or another area away from the bedroom
  • If you've been exposed to bedbugs, you can kill any bugs that may be on your clothes by drying them on high heat or by getting your clothes dry-cleaned

"Simply put, find them before they find you," Best says. "Avoiding contact or environments with bedbugs means you won't be their ride back to your home in the first place."