Answers to Your Bed Bug ID, Prevention, and Extermination Questions

Bed Bug Control

Bedbugs on a bed sheet
Bed bugs on a bed sheet. Roger Eritja/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

How big are bed bugs? How do I know the new mattress I bought doesn't have bedbugs? Do bedbugs live only in beds? This article poses -- and answers -- some of the most common questions about bed bugs (also spell bedbugs) and their identification, prevention and elimination. 

What do bed bugs look like?

Bed bugs are flat, slightly oval, somewhat teardrop-shaped insects that measure about a ¼ inch in length when fully grown.

Bed bugs are larger than many people expect, as they assume the insects are comparable to fleas in size. Bed bugs are basically dark brown, varying to red or rust colored.

Where will I find bed bugs?

Since bed bugs are almost entirely nocturnal, you don't often see them in the open during the daytime. They prefer to stay in the crevices of furniture, as well as mattresses, or wall voids when they're not feeding.

Why do bed bugs bite?

Bed bugs come out at night to feed on the blood of warm-blooded creatures, preferably humans. Since they dislike foraging through hair, bed bugs don't often target pets.

How will I know if I've been bitten by a bed bug?

If you have been bitten by bed bugs you may have red, itchy spots on areas of your body that don't have much hair. The bites often appear in a line or cluster near each other, formed as the bugs feed on multiple sites. Bed bug bites can become inflamed and itchy due to an allergic reaction to the bed bug saliva.

How do I know if there are bed bugs in my home?

Other than the bed bug bites, the most common indication of a bed bug infestation are blood spots or fecal smears on bed sheets, blankets, or the mattress. Look for this evidence near seams and fabric overlaps. The fecal smears are brownish and typically about ¼-inch to ½-inch long.

You may also find discarded insect exoskeletons in the crevices of furniture or carpeting.

In cases of heavy infestations of bed bugs, you may notice a musty, sweet aroma, sometimes compared to rotten raspberries, almond extract, or unwashed sheets. 

Can I set traps for bed bugs?

Yes, there are a number of bed bug detection glue traps available for purchase online, or, possibly, at your local home and garden store. You can also apply double-sided tape to baseboards, bed legs, mattress surfaces, or bed frame components for your own sticky bed bug detection monitors. This will help tell you if you have bed bugs and may prevent some from climbing onto your bed if they aren't already there, but it will not eliminate an infestation.

How can I prevent bed bugs?

  • Don't accept used furniture.
  • When traveling, use bed bug exclusion bags in your luggage so you don't bring insects home with you.
  • Don't agree to stay in a room you expect will be infested with bed bugs. Insist on different accommodations or a refund.
  • Launder all clothing immediately upon returning from travel.
  • When buying a new bed, ask for morning delivery. If the truck also picks up used mattresses or furniture, your new mattress could spend the day an infested mattress or two -- and arrive with bed bugs already inside.

    How do I kill bed bugs?

    Discarding infested furniture or mattress is the preferred solution but not always practical. And even if you discard items, intensive investigation and/or treatment is needed to ensure you are not leaving bed bugs in other areas of your home to re-infest new furniture.

    It is strongly suggested that you contact a qualified professional to help eliminate bed bugs. Seek out a company the has bed bug expertise, and don't be afraid to ask for references before committing to an appointment. Remember that bed bugs are a relatively new phenomenon, and working with an experienced company can decrease the number of treatments and, therefore, the overall cost.

    How do pest control companies exterminate bed bugs?

    Most professionals will need multiple visits to eradicate a bed bug infestation.

    The trick for an effective treatment is to place the insecticide where the bugs will encounter the poison. Bombing or fogging treatments for bed bugs are not effective. The chemicals do not penetrate into the deep recesses where bed bugs harbor, nor do they leave a residue that bed bugs will encounter when they come out to feed.

    The most effective technique for chemical control of bed bugs is the use of a bed bug-approved residual insecticide. Pest control specialists apply the insecticide to the infested surfaces and seams, such as the cracks and crevices near the baseboards, wall trim, switch plate and outlet plate, and the seams of furniture and mattresses.

    Note: Electrical junction box or outlet should never be treated with a liquid insecticide that could conduct electricity. A dry formula, such as a dust, should be used in these areas.

    Are there any non-chemical methods that will eliminate bed bugs?

    Some non-pesticide control methods are showing promise. Professionally administered heat treatments for bed bugs raise the temperatures of the room, the furniture, and the wall voids to a consistent 115-120º F temperature. This heat remediation treatment kills all stages of the bed bug life cycle. Other heat-based methods include laundering infested items in hot water, steam treatments, and bagging items in clear plastic and placing them in the sun on a hot day to reach the necessary 115-120º range.

    CAUTION: Attempting heat remediation without the proper training or equipment could result in a failed treatment at best, but could also lead to ruining expensive electronics or personal items, or cause a catastrophic fire.

    Updated by Lisa Jo Lupo.