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How to Check for Bed Bugs and Bed Bug Bites

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Michelle is a blogger, cook, freelance writer, and editor living in Seattle, Washington.

Nymph preparing to feed.

Nymph preparing to feed.

In the last few years, bed bugs have become an epidemic in the United States and Canada. Despite the stigma that they are a result of poor housekeeping, these tiny pests invade even the tidiest homes and upscale hotels; luggage and clothing make the ideal vessels for these bugs, moving them from home to home and hotel to hotel. What's worse, many people do not know how to check for bed bugs and so delay pest control efforts.

So how do you know if you have bed bugs? And what do they look like, anyway? Below are several steps on how to identify and prevent these pests from taking over your home, as well as information on identifying bites.

Bed bug finishing up its snack.

Bed bug finishing up its snack.

Checking for Bed Bugs

Bed bugs leave several tell-tale signs that experienced travelers and savvy homeowners should look for before setting their clothing or luggage anywhere near the bed.

What They Look Like

Adults have a reddish-brown color with a generally flat, oval-shaped body. They grow to about the size of an apple seed. Young bugs, also called nymphs, have a golden or honey-toned color. While they may be a bit smaller, they can do just as much damage. Nymphs indicate the presence of adults.

How to Check for Bed Bugs

  1. Check the top of your mattress and its seams. Also check your curtains, couches, linens, and even unused clothing for live bugs, the carcasses of dead bugs, or bug parts, like skin and legs that may have been torn loose or shed.
  2. Look for dark red spots about the size of poppy seeds or fecal matter, which they leave behind after eating.
  3. Look for eggs, which look like grains of rice.
  4. Examine furniture, including drawers, headboards, bed frames, and desk areas, as well as the floor area beneath the furniture. (Because they are flat, they can crawl into tiny crevices in furniture to hide. Be rigorous in your examination!)
  5. Remember to check the extra linens in hotel room closets, pull-out beds, or cots, as these often move room to room and may have been in an infested room at some point.
  6. Use your nose. They usually leave a musty, sweet odor.

Preventing Infestations

There are steps you can take while traveling and at home to avoid a bed bug infestation.

While Traveling

  • Keep luggage and clothing off the floor and bed of hotel rooms until you have used the tips below to confirm the absence of bugs.
  • Keep suitcases, clothing, and all other personal items off the floor for the duration of your stay. The bugs are mobile and may crawl in from nearby rooms. Before leaving, give your items a quick once-over to ensure sure none have found their way into your things.
  • Wash all travel clothing, towels, and linens in the hottest water the fabrics allow whenever possible and immediately upon your return home. Likewise, dry these items on the highest heat setting possible. Shake out, then vacuum your luggage and purses. Discard the vacuum bag or contents immediately. Rinse or wipe down other personal items with a washcloth. Remember to wash the washcloth and your hands immediately after finishing.

At Home

  • Clean your home regularly. While a clean home is no guarantee against this pest, it can help to expose an infestation or remove dormant bugs or eggs.
  • Seal up any cracks in the walls or flooring that might allow them to enter or hide. If you live in an apartment, ask your landlord to seal up any holes that lead to other apartments. You can only control your home, not the homes of others, who may introduce an infestation that can spread to your home via small passages.
  • Offer guests the use of your washing machine and dryer for their clothing and soft luggage during their stay, just in case they picked something up along the way.
  • Keep your bed frame away from walls and your sheets tucked in. The goal is to make the mattress as inaccessible to the bugs as possible.
  • Cover your mattress and box spring with a plastic cover. The cover not only keeps pests out but keeps pests in, too. Though they take a long time to starve to death, they will die eventually.

Checking for Bites

Bites have a few specific signs, but to the untrained eye, they may resemble a common mosquito or non-poisonous spider bite. Additionally, they may take up to two weeks to appear. While everyone responds differently, most people will see the bite within a few hours.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Bites often resemble small red bumps. At times, these red bumps may inflame into large welts. While some people feel little itchiness from the bites, others will find them much more uncomfortable and itchy than mosquito bites.
  • Bites occur in a fairly linear line of three or four. This line represents a bug eating and walking over the course of a few hours or the night. Several bugs may leave numerous small bite clusters.
  • Bites will appear on the skin longer than a standard mosquito or non-poisonous spider bite.
  • Bites take hours or even days to appear and will correspond with a recent vacation or signs of an infestation in the home.
Bites after one week.

Bites after one week.

Ease the Itching

Several treatments for the itching are on the market, such as:

  • Hydrocortisone cream (rinse hands well after application and do not touch eyes)
  • Tea tree oil
  • Betamethasone valerate
  • Benadryl
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Bites may take hours or days to show up on the skin.

Bites may take hours or days to show up on the skin.

Exterminating Bed Bugs

If you find signs the pest is present in your home, do not waste any time getting down to work. The longer you wait, the worse the infestation will become. When it comes to ridding your house of the critters, you have two options:

  1. Call a professional.
  2. Do it yourself.

Natural Extermination Methods

I recognize that not everyone has the financial wherewithal to hire a professional to take care of pest control, so I've included steps to a natural, earth- and budget-friendly approach. However, managing even a small infestation is very difficult without the tools and knowledge of professionals. Prepare yourself for several cleaning attempts or the eventual cost of a pest control service.

  1. Wash everything, from linens to curtains, in the hottest water possible, then dry everything on the hottest setting possible.
  2. Vacuum everything, being careful to remove the vacuum bag from the home. If the vacuum has a container and not a bag, be sure to rinse it with scalding-hot water after bagging and dumping its contents away from your home and the homes of others.
  3. Take a washcloth dipped in a water and rubbing alcohol solution and wipe down as many surfaces that can tolerate the solution without damage. Immediately wash the rag in hot water.
  4. Consider purchasing a plastic mattress bag to starve the critters residing within.
  5. Leave no stone unturned or drawer unopened. Clean everything: no amount of cleaning is too much.
  6. Use Diatomaceous Earth (DE). This substance is natural, cheap, chemical-free, and 100% safe for pets and children. You can find it at natural food, garden, and farm supply stores. The DE sticks to them and many other pests and dehydrates them. Sprinkle it into drawers, seams, or on the surfaces of infested areas. Sprinkle it along baseboards, on closet shelves, under the headboard and on the bed frame, under the mattress, or in any crevice where a bug or its eggs may be hiding.
  7. Seal all exits to and from the infected region of the home. Use thick lines of DE across doorways to keep them from crawling from room to room.
  8. Use a solution of one part water to one part dish soap to spray any you see on the spot.
  9. Wait and be vigilant!

Getting Some Professional Help

Most regions have professional services to assist in pest control management. These services generally rely on the vulnerability of the pest to heat, cold, and poison. As a result, you have a few methods from which to choose for professional pest management:

  1. Insecticide: The trouble with insecticide is that pests eventually build up an immunity to the stuff. Additionally, insecticide poses health risks for family members and often adversely affects the environment. However, insecticide is still an effective means of treatment, though it may be wise to save it for a last resort or to use it in combination with one of the safer methods below.
  2. Steam: Because the pests are sensitive to heat, focused steam will instantly kill them and their eggs. This method has a fatal flaw, however, in that it relies on proximity to work. A pest control professional waving a steam wand who misses an area of about six inches on a mattress will often cause a re-infestation. Still, this method poses no health risk and only moderate risk to most of your household goods.
  3. Heat: The heat method also relies on the vulnerability of the pests to heat by converting the infected area of the home into a large oven. With temperatures up to 120°F, the bed bugs cook to death. Although this method seems simple, it has some drawbacks. For one, certain items including the mattress may not reach the required temperature. Also, the heat poses risks to some household goods, which means that several unsafe items, like hairspray or paint cans, must be removed from the infected region of the home and cleaned individually.
  4. Cold: Much gentler than the heat method, the cold method poses less risk to household goods. It also requires much less energy to use and, like the heat methods, has no risk of allowing the targeted pests to build an immunity. Unfortunately, this method has the same weakness as the steam method: it can target bugs themselves, or regions of infestations, but the chances of killing off the entire infestation are much less likely than with some insecticides.

Combination Treatments

Despite the risk of eventual immunities, many professionals like to combine hot or cold treatments with insecticide. The hope is that by using the safer, more environmentally friendly option first, the infestation will require less insecticide later.

Though this method has its obvious downsides, it's hard to argue with its rate of effectiveness. For those with a tough infestation, this may be the best way to limit chemicals in the home while still applying the muscle needed to kill off the last dregs of an infestation.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


song on September 25, 2019:

trying to find a way to help a friend rid their selves of these things

water leaks on May 27, 2018:

i extremely agree with you

Tom rubenoff from United States on September 04, 2011:

I appreciate this de-mystification of the scourge of the bed bug. Excellent, thorough article!

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