What Are Bed Bugs and What Do They Look Like?

by | Feb 15, 2024

Understanding the characteristics of bed bugs is crucial in distinguishing them from other insects. Misidentifying your pest problem and treating for other pests can be an expensive mistake that allows bed bugs to spread within your home. Knowledge of a bed bug’s distinct appearance, habits, and typical hiding spots is key to early identification which is critical to successfully addressing an infestation. This awareness is especially important given the impact bed bugs have on a household and how difficult bed bugs are to treat once their populations get out of hand. 

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What are Bed Bugs?

Bed bugs are parasitic insects that prefer to feed on the blood of humans but will sometimes feed on animals when human hosts are not available [1]. These bugs are incredibly durable and persistent which makes them a nightmare to deal with once they have managed to find their way onto your property. They latch onto unsuspecting hosts when they come into contact with infested spaces which allows the bed bugs to be carried to new locations. They are able to live in almost any environment except for those found in the most extreme temperature ranges and can survive for extended periods without feeding. They have also become resistant to different pesticides which make them incredibly difficult to treat [2].

What Do Bed Bugs Look Like? 

Bed bugs exhibit distinct changes in appearance as they develop which is crucial to understand for proper identification. Adult bed bugs are usually about the size of an apple seed, measuring roughly 5 mm or 1/5 inch in length [3]. They possess a reddish brown and flat oval-shaped body when unfed. However, after feeding, they swell into a reddish, elongated balloon-like figure. They may be wingless and incapable of flight, but they are able to move quickly, reaching speeds of up to 7.6 ft / min [4].

Young bed bugs, or nymphs, are smaller and have a translucent or whitish-yellow color. This makes them challenging to spot against light colored bedding, especially when they haven’t fed recently. These bed bug nymphs undergo five immature stages, with the first instar nymph being the most difficult to detect due to its minuscule size and pale coloration. They become more visible after feeding because their translucent bodies become bright red when full of blood. As nymphs feed and grow, they gradually darken and enlarge. 

How Big Are Bed Bugs?

Bed bugs exhibit a range of sizes throughout their life cycle. Adult bed bugs typically measure between 5 to 7 millimeters in length which is roughly equivalent to the size of Abraham Lincoln’s head on a penny. This size makes them visible to the naked eye but small enough to hide in narrow crevices.

The earlier stages of the bed bug life cycle increase slightly with each molting before reaching maturity. The bed bug life cycle begins with the egg stage, where each egg is about 1 mm in size. As the bed bug develops, it goes through various nymph stages. 

  • 1st stage nymph – 1.5 mm
  • 2nd stage nymph – 2 mm
  • 3rd stage nymph – 2.5 mm
  • 4th stage nymph – 3 mm
  • 5th stage nymph – 4.5 mm

Are Bed Bugs Dangerous?

Bed bugs are not considered dangerous in terms of disease transmission like mosquitoes or fleas, but they can still pose health concerns due to their bites. These insects feed on blood to develop and release a salivary secretion that contains an anticoagulant when they feed [5]. This secretion is mostly harmless, but people have varying degrees of allergic reactions to it. For some, there is no histamine response at all while others experience minor symptoms like itchiness and discomfort. For a small percentage of people who are severely allergic to the secretion, the impact will be far more significant. These reactions can range from mild, such as hives, to more severe responses like blisters or intense itching. If you experience severe symptoms or allergic reactions, it’s important to see a doctor for treatment. Additionally, individuals who excessively scratch their bed bug bites can break the skin which increases the risk of developing infections at the site of the bites. 

Bed Bug Bites

Bed bugs are primarily nocturnal pests that bite people while they sleep. They do this because this is when their hosts are most likely to remain still and unaware of the bed bugs feeding on them. However, this doesn’t preclude bed bugs from being active during the day as they will come out to feed if a host is nearby, and they are hungry. Bed bugs use their long beaks to pierce the skin and draw blood which typically occurs for 3 to 10 minutes. The bites present in a straight line or zigzag pattern which occurs due to bed bugs probing the skin multiple times before finding a capillary to draw from [6]. The immediate response to a bed bug bite varies significantly among individuals. On lighter skin, these bites often appear as red, itchy spots, while on darker skin, they may present as purple marks. Identification is further complicated as it can take up to two weeks for marks to appear. These bites are also frequently mistaken for those from mosquitoes or fleas which makes bed bug bite identification critical for proper treatment. It is important to note that bed bug bites differ from flea and mosquito bites due to their absence of a red spot in the center, in addition to the location and pattern of the bites. 

The physical impact of bed bug bites is generally limited to itching and, in some cases, a secondary infection at the bite site. The psychological impacts of bed bug bites on the other hand, can be significant and result in insomnia, anxiety, stress, hypervigilance, PTSD, and avoidance behaviors that stem from wanting to prevent the spread of bed bugs to friends and family [7]. Over time, people can develop more severe responses with prolonged exposure which exacerbates the psychological impacts of bed bug bites until they are eradicated. 

Bed Bug Allergies

For individuals with allergies to bed bug bites, the severity of the allergy can be determined by the level of itchiness. Some people are fortunate enough to not have any response at all. In these situations, bed bug populations can proliferate throughout a structure which make them the epicenters of spreading bed bugs. Most people have some varying degree of reaction which helps with bed bug containment as these structures are treated as soon as a population is found and identified. If you find that the itchiness from bed bug bites is particularly intense or unbearable, this may indicate a strong allergic reaction. In such cases, it is advisable to consult a doctor for appropriate treatment to manage the reaction effectively. 

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Bed Bug Behavior & Reproduction

Bed bugs generally exhibit nocturnal behaviors because that is when they can feed. They locate their hosts by following the release of CO2 and then seeking out the warmth that a warm-blooded host gives off. Once they have found a host, they feed for between 3-10 minutes before retreating to a place where they can hide and digest. During their lifecycle, they feed, digest meals, mate, and lay eggs. Remarkably, adult bed bugs can survive several months without a blood meal and can endure a wide range of temperatures which contributes to their resilience in various environments.

Bed bugs also exhibit behavior that is highly adapted to stealthy survival and effective reproduction. Their notably flat bodies enable them to squeeze into extremely narrow spaces that are no thicker than a credit card. This facilitates their ability to squeeze into a variety of environments and remain hidden. Unlike insects that construct nests, bed bugs prefer to find concealed areas where they live in clusters called aggregation points. These aggregation points are found by the pheromones that other bed bugs release [8].

In terms of reproduction, female bed bugs are prolific breeders that are capable of laying hundreds of tiny eggs throughout their lifespan. The development process of these insects is equally efficient. Immature bed bugs nymphs undergo five molts, shedding their skin each time they feed. Under optimal conditions, bed bugs will feed every 3-7 days [9] and can complete their development in just a month. On average, the speed at which bed bugs reach reproductive maturity creates the potential for 6 or more generations each year. Their lifespan can vary but a bed bug can survive for about 10 months to a year depending on environmental factors and availability of food sources. This rapid development and reproduction cycle underscores the potential for bed bug populations to quickly escalate in infested areas.

Where are Bed Bugs Found?

Bed bugs are a global issue, with their presence not limited to any specific region or development status of a country. They are found across diverse continents, including North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. They are commonly perceived as a concern in developing areas, but bed bugs are indeed prevalent in developed countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Their adaptability and ability to travel through various means enable them to infest a wide range of environments worldwide.

Where Can Bed Bugs Hide? 

Bed bugs are proficient at concealing themselves in a variety of environments which make them challenging pests to locate and eradicate. Not only are they found in homes, but they are also commonly found in inhabited settings that have high turnover or multiple residents such as hotels, motels, apartments, dorm rooms, shelters, and rooming houses. Their presence is not just limited to living spaces and they can also infest public transport options like buses, taxis, trains, and cruise ships as well as locations where people congregate like offices, movie theaters, cafes, and restaurants. According to research from the National Pest Management Association [10], the prevalence of bed bugs in various structures is notable:

  • Single-family homes: 91%
  • Apartments/condominiums: 89%
  • Hotels/motels: 68%
  • Nursing homes: 59%
  • Schools and daycare centers: 47%
  • Office buildings: 46%
  • College dorms: 45%
  • Hospitals: 36%
  • Public transportation: 19%

This data underscores the widespread nature of bed bug infestations and their ability to thrive in diverse environments, from personal residences to public spaces. 

How Do Bed Bugs Find Their Way Inside?

Bed bugs are notorious for their ability to stealthily infiltrate homes and various other structures. Typically, bed bugs enter homes by hitchhiking from infested locations on an unsuspecting carrier’s clothing, bags, or luggage. In multifamily dwellings like apartments or condominiums, they can easily migrate from one unit to another through walls. They can also be introduced into a building through secondhand furniture. Their small size and proficiency at hiding make them particularly adept at entering homes unnoticed.

These pests are not only adept at hiding in luggage and other personal belongings but also exhibit a remarkable ability to establish themselves in new environments. Once inside, bed bugs tend to spread throughout a space, finding refuge in a variety of locations far beyond just beds. They are known to hide in cracks and crevices in walls or wood, behind baseboards, around mattress buttons, within bedding, inside box springs, and even in less obvious places like electrical switch plates, picture frames, and wallpaper. 

Signs of Bed Bugs

Identifying a bed bug infestation often begins with recognizing their distinct signs. One of the earliest indicators may be the appearance of small, itchy bites, commonly found on the arms or shoulders. These bites often appear in clusters of 3 that appear in a linear or zigzag pattern rather than being scattered sporadically. However, it’s important to note that not everyone reacts to bed bug bites, which can make early detection challenging. Beyond bites, there are several other signs that can signal the presence of bed bugs [11]:

  • Blood stains on your sheets or mattress which are often left behind after bed bugs feed.
  • Tiny pale-yellow eggs or eggshells that indicate a breeding population.
  • Small black dots representing bed bug feces.
  • Molted skins that resemble the bed bugs themselves that are shed during the nymph stages.
  • A distinctive sweet, musty odor near your bed. This smell is the pheromones produced by the bed bugs that attract other bed bugs to aggregation points.
  • Sightings of actual bed bugs in your bed, especially during the night.
  • Bed bug aggregation points where bed bugs remain hidden in large groupings.

How to Check for Bed Bugs

To effectively check for bed bugs, a detailed inspection of your sleeping area is essential if you have reasons to suspect an infestation. Begin with a thorough examination of your mattress and bed while focusing on any crevices and hidden spots. Bed bugs tend to favor such areas for their proximity to their human hosts. Key points to inspect include the seams, tags, and piping of mattresses or box springs as well as any cracks in the bed frame or headboard.

Over time, as populations grow, bed bugs may extend their habitat beyond the immediate bed area into any suitable hiding place. Be vigilant and look for signs of bed bugs in various locations [12], such as:

  • Seams or between cushions of sofas and chairs
  • Folds of curtains
  • Joints of drawers
  • Electrical outlets and appliances
  • Electronics
  • Adjacent rooms or apartments
  • Clothing
  • Areas under peeling paint or loose wallpaper
  • Under carpeting near baseboards
  • Luggage and boxes
  • Headboards

It’s important to note that the presence of bed bugs is not necessarily a sign of uncleanliness. These pests can thrive in any environment as long as they have access to their food source: blood. Therefore, bed bugs can be found in both immaculate and disorganized spaces even though cluttered spaces may provide them with more areas to hide. 

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How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs

Eliminating bed bugs involves a combination of thorough cleaning and strategic measures. Start by addressing items that can harbor bed bugs:

  • Wash bedding, curtains, and clothing in hot water, then dry them on the highest setting. For items that cannot be washed, like stuffed animals and shoes, place them in the dryer on high heat for at least 30 minutes.
  • Use a stiff brush to scrub the seams of your mattress to dislodge bed bugs and their eggs, then vacuum the mattress and surrounding areas rigorously. This should include windows, moldings, and any nearby furniture. Immediately dispose of the vacuum cleaner bag in a sealed plastic bag and place it in an outdoor garbage bin.
  • Follow up the vacuuming with a thorough steam cleaning of the entire surface of the mattress and box spring, while paying close attention to the seams and labels where bed bugs can stay hidden. Also steam clean any upholstered furniture and the joints of any wooden furniture to achieve the same goal of heat treating bed bugs. 
  • Encase your mattress and box springs in tightly woven, zippered covers to prevent bed bugs from entering or escaping. Since bed bugs can survive months without feeding, it’s recommended to keep the covers on for at least a year.
  • Repair any cracks in plaster and glue down peeling wallpaper to eliminate potential hiding places for bed bugs.
  • Declutter the area around your bed and maintain a distance between your bed and the walls or other pieces of furniture.
  • In hot climates, placing items in an enclosed bag and leaving them in a sunbaked car can help. The aim is to reach a temperature of at least 120 F to effectively kill bed bugs.
  • If your mattress is heavily infested, consider replacing it. However, ensure you’ve taken steps to rid the rest of your home of bed bugs first, to prevent re-infestation of the new mattress.

These steps can significantly reduce bed bug populations, but in cases of severe infestation, professional pest control services may be necessary for complete eradication. Remember, bed bugs are resilient pests and tackling an infestation often requires persistence and a combination of strategically implemented bed bug control methods.

How to Prevent Bed Bugs

Preventing bed bugs requires a combination of vigilance and proactive measures to create an environment less conducive to their infestation. Here are some effective strategies:

  • Use protective covers on your mattresses and box springs and regularly inspect them for any signs of tears or holes.
  • Keep your bedroom clutter-free to minimize potential hiding places for bed bugs.
  • Maintain a regular vacuuming routine, covering not just the mattress but also carpets, curtains, and upholstered furniture to remove any early infestations.
  • When traveling, be cautious with your luggage. Avoid placing bags on the bed or floor in hotels; instead, use a suitcase stand, dresser, or table. Upon returning home, wash and hot-dry all clothing from your trip, regardless of whether it was worn.
  • Consider wearing long-sleeved pajamas and long pants while sleeping to reduce skin exposure and potential bites.
  • Exercise caution when acquiring used furniture, especially upholstered items. Thoroughly inspect for signs of bed bugs before bringing anything into your home.
  • Avoid used mattresses and bedding as they are common sources of bed bug infestations.
  • When using shared laundry facilities, transport your clothes and linens in plastic bags and fold clean clothes at home to avoid contamination.
  • In multi-unit dwellings, implement barriers under doors and seal any cracks around baseboards and electrical outlets to hinder bed bug movement between units.

By integrating these practices into your daily routine, you can significantly reduce the risk of a bed bug infestation. Remember, early detection is key, so staying vigilant and responding promptly to any signs of bed bugs is crucial for effective prevention.

Contact Absolute if You Are Dealing with Bed Bugs

Dealing with bed bugs can be a challenging and stressful experience that requires diligence and often professional intervention. If you suspect a bed bug infestation in your home or simply want to ensure your environment is pest-free, don’t hesitate to seek the help of bed bug control experts. Absolute Pest Management specializes in effectively identifying, treating, and preventing bed bug infestations. Our experienced team is equipped with the knowledge and tools necessary to provide you with a swift and thorough solution. We have offices in Austin and Buda, Texas and serve the surrounding communities. Contact Absolute Pest Management today for a consultation and let us help you restore the comfort and safety of your living space.

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Bed Bug Appearance FAQs

  • How can I tell if we have bed bugs?
    • To determine if you have bed bugs, look for key signs such as small, itchy bites on your skin that often appear in a line or zigzag pattern. Additionally, check for tiny blood spots on your sheets, small black fecal spots, shed skins, and tiny, pale-yellow eggs around your mattress seams, furniture, and other hidden spots. If you notice these indicators, it’s wise to consider a professional inspection because bed bugs can be difficult to treat.
  • What can be mistaken for bed bugs?
    • Several pests can be mistaken for bed bugs including carpet beetles, fleas, and certain types of ticks. Carpet beetles are small, round, and vary in color, but unlike bed bugs they feed on fabric rather than blood. Ticks are similar in size to bed bugs and also feed on blood, but they remain attached to the skin longer while feeding. Fleas are much smaller and tend to bite lower on the body.
  • How do you know it’s not bed bugs?
    • Determining that an issue is not related to bed bugs involves identifying signs that are inconsistent with their typical behavior and evidence. If the bites you experience are primarily during the day, mainly around ankles or wrists, or if you don’t find any signs like small blood spots, black fecal dots, shed skins, or the bugs themselves around sleeping areas, it’s less likely to be bed bugs. Observing the specific pattern and location of bites, along with thoroughly inspecting your sleeping area can help differentiate between bed bugs and other pests.

Sources

[1] https://www.petsandparasites.org/parasites-and-your-family/bed-bugs-theyre-ba-aack

[2] http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/bb-ddt.html

[3] https://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7454.html

[4] https://bedbugs.tennessee.edu/biology-and-identification/

[5] https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/IG083

[6] [9] https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/server/api/core/bitstreams/d565c7bc-dc55-4524-a7ff-2ebbf126f53c/content

[7] https://citybugs.tamu.edu/files/2018/02/Goddard-and-de-Shazo-2012-Am-J-Med-Psycholog-Effects-of-Bed-bug-attacks-1.pdf

[8] https://uknowledge.uky.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1056&context=entomology_etds

[10] https://www.pestworld.org/pest-guide/bed-bugs/bed-bugs/

[11] https://bedbugs.tennessee.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/210/2021/01/biology-and-Identication-bb-identify1.pdf

[12] https://entomology.ca.uky.edu/ef636

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