​​Bed Bug Smell: Why Do They Stink So Bad?

  • Written By Dan Edwards on December 23, 2017
    Last Updated: December 23, 2020

Maybe you’ve heard about bed bug smell. It’s true that these little pests have a unique smell that can distinguish them from other home infestations, and that’s actually a good thing. You may not like the odor they add to your bedroom or other places in your home, but it’s one way you can pinpoint their location and target treatments to get rid of them.

That’s what you’ll get specifics about in this article. In particular, you’ll learn how to distinguish bed bug smell from other odors and get descriptions of what precisely these pests smell like. You’ll also find out how to get rid of bed bug smells, during and after an infestation. You’ll even get information about whether pets can help you detect bed bugs through their sense of smell.

Read on to find out whether that funny smell might be bed bugs.

What Do Bed Bugs Smell Like?

It’s important to remember that aromas can be somewhat subjective. Not everyone smells a particular scent in exactly the same way, and not every bed bug colony will smell exactly the same, either. To top it off, you’re likely to smell a combination of different aromas related to a bed bug infestation.

The most common words used to describe bed bug smell are “musty” and “sweet”. Some people describe it as moldy or rotting raspberries. Not very appealing, huh?

Some people think the odor is more like the herb, coriander seed. In fact, the word “coriander” comes from the ancient Greek word for “insect”, so it seems that the sweet, musty smell of bed bugs has been associated with coriander for quite a long time. An older name for bed bugs was actually coriander bugs (a bit redundant once you know the word origin of coriander.)

CC Image courtesy of louento.pix

Coriander, in addition to being sweet and a bit musty smelling when ripe, has underlying scents of nuts and citrus. Like coriander, bed bug smell can also be a bit nutty or woody. It is quite a unique odor.

Bed bug smell has also been described as similar to the smell emitted by stink bugs. Stink bug odor has also been described as similar to coriander, or like sweaty socks or mild skunk odor. It’s funny how such similar smells can be both part of a gourmet recipe and part of an animal’s defense strategy.

Why Do Bed Bugs Smell?

As mentioned above, bed bugs make a few different smells. One scent you may encounter is the bed bug alarm pheromone. They emit this smell for self-defense. Don’t worry, it can’t make you sick.

The alarm pheromone is emitted both to defend them from predators, such as birds, arachnids, lizards, and other insects, and to defend them from other bed bugs. Why would bed bugs need defense against each other? The main reason is that adult male bed bugs will try to mate with anything that they perceive as a bed bug.

That means immature nymphs and other male bed bugs can receive a mating attack, as well as already fertilized females. Attack is the right word for it too, since bed bugs mate through traumatic insemination, also known as hypodermic insemination. Basically, male bed bugs pierce the abdomen of their mating partner with a sharp sex organ and inseminate them through the wound.

CC Image courtesy of AFPMB

Given that knowledge, it makes sense that other bed bugs would try to emit an alarm odor at the prospect of being a mate.

In addition to the alarm pheromone, the other smells you may encounter from a bed bug infestation are the scent of their fecal matter and the decaying smell of skins that have been molted off or dead bed bugs.

Is A Bed Bug Scent Always Noticeable?

Now, if you smell something like what’s been described above, it’s a fairly good clue that you have a bed bug infestation. Unfortunately, you can’t always detect the smell of bed bugs, for various reasons.

If you have a small infestation, or if it’s in the early stages, you probably won’t smell anything. It’s also less likely that you’ll smell anything if the bed bug colony is left alone. If you disturb their hiding place, however, they’ll probably release those alarm pheromones, emitting a stink.

CC Image courtesy of AFPMB

Unfortunately for the bed bugs (but fortunate for you), rather than deterring humans, their odor simply tips us off to their whereabouts.

If you’re treating an active colony, don’t take a lack of smell to mean that the bed bugs are entirely gone. You should keep up follow-up and preventive treatments for many months after you think you’ve gotten them because it’s possible for even a single missed bug to restart the whole problem.

How To Get Rid Of Bed Bug Smells

There are two steps to getting rid of bed bug smells. The first step is getting rid of the infestation. As long as you still have living bed bugs in your home, you’re going to be living with their odors.

Attempting to treat the odor problem without getting rid of the bugs is a lost cause. However, it’s understandable that you’ll want to keep the odor down as much as possible while you’re still trying to get rid of these pests. The best thing to do is regularly wash bedding or other fabrics near the colony. Of course, you’ll need to locate the colony in order for this to work (which you may have done already by locating their pungent smell).

My Favorite Bed Bug Treatment Products

While getting rid of bed bugs without buying any additional products can be done with very small infestations, I believe that by purchasing just a few additional products, you’ll be so much better equipped, and will be able to stamp out an infestation before it gets worse. Below is my list of essential products.

Bed Bug Killer by Bed Bug Patrol - 100% Kill Rate - Child & Pet Friendly - Natural Bed Bug Treatment Spray - Non-Toxic - University Tested - for Home, Office, Vehicles, Mattresses & Furniture - 24 oz

Bed Bug Killer by Bed Bug Patrol - 100% Kill Rate - Child & Pet Friendly - Natural Bed Bug Treatment Spray - Non-Toxic - University Tested - for Home, Office, Vehicles, Mattresses & Furniture - 24 oz

Bed Bug Patrol Bed Bug Killer – One of the best bed bug sprays that I’ve yet to personally use. Not only does it have a reported 100% kill rate against live bed bugs in controlled tests, but it’s also child and pet friendly. This product can be used against both light and heavy infestations, and most importantly, it’s laboratory tested and completely chemical-free.

Studies conducted using the treatment showed an impressive kill rate of 83% within just 30 minutes after application, and 98% within the first four hours, leading on to an eventual mortality rate of 100% over time.

Queen (13-16 in. Deep) SureGuard Mattress Encasement - 100% Waterproof, Bed Bug Proof, Hypoallergenic - Premium Zippered Six-Sided Cover

Queen (13-16 in. Deep) SureGuard Mattress Encasement - 100% Waterproof, Bed Bug Proof, Hypoallergenic - Premium Zippered Six-Sided Cover

SureGuard Mattress Encasement – It’s thick, durable, and is certain to help stop bed bugs of all sizes from getting to, or from, your mattress.

The protector prevents bed bug transportation by using SureSeal technology, and by using an extremely fine zipper that not even bed bug nymphs can impregnate.

ECOPEST Bed Bug Interceptors – 8 Pack | Bed Bug Blocker (Pro) Interceptor Traps (Black) | Insect Trap, Monitor, and Detector for Bed Legs

ECOPEST Bed Bug Interceptors – 8 Pack | Bed Bug Blocker (Pro) Interceptor Traps (Black) | Insect Trap, Monitor, and Detector for Bed Legs

In my experience, the best and most effective bed bug traps are usually the ones that are designed to work in the simplest of ways. I’ve used the Bed Bug Blocker Interceptor Traps extensively and I find they do the job better than any other trap I’ve tried. You also get a very generous 8 interceptors per pack.

Simply place them directly underneath the bed/table/chair legs you’re trying to protect, and watch the bed bugs fall into the traps time and time again with no chance of escape.

ZappBug The Oven 2 XL Large Bed Bug Heater | Real Reviews | Time-Tested | Excellent Customer Service

ZappBug The Oven 2 XL Large Bed Bug Heater | Real Reviews | Time-Tested | Excellent Customer Service

ZapBugg Bed Bug Heater – Specially designed to kill all stages in the bed bug life cycle, including eggs, without the need to purchase expensive pest control heat treatment solutions.

Simply place infested items into the ZappBug heater and it will automatically reach the all-important bed bug killing temperature, so you can be sure the items will come out free from all life stages of bed bug once the process is complete.

Large and small versions are also available.

CC Image courtesy of AFPMB

Vacuuming often will help somewhat, as you’ll pick up a portion of the discarded skins. You can also spray vinegar around the area of the colony or set out bowls of vinegar in the room to help absorb odors. Sprinkling baking soda on carpets or other areas can help, though you’ll have to clean up the baking soda.

Once you’ve gotten rid of bed bugs in your home, the second step to getting rid of their odors is finding and disposing of any remnants of dead bugs and their waste. This can be a difficult task because they likely hid inside furniture or structures. You’ll need to wash or dispose of anything they were in contact with.

Can Dogs Detect Bed Bug Scents Better Than Humans?

Dogs have highly developed senses of smell, in general. If you have a dog in your home, it’s likely they will smell the bed bug aroma. They may even seek out the source and sniff at the area where bed bugs are hiding. This probably won’t be much help to you, though.

If your dog is aware of a funny smell and barks at the bed or baseboards around the floor, you’re not going to know what doggo smells or what they are barking at.

Dogs can be trained to detect certain scents, including the smell of bed bugs, but not many exterminators use dogs as part of their bed bug detection process. In the case that an exterminator does use a trained scent detecting dog, the canine can usually detect smaller numbers of bed bugs than a human could, helping to positively identify them.

This does make bed bug detecting dogs somewhat useful, but just like us, a dog can miss the bugs if the smell is not available because the bugs are hiding or small in numbers. Trained dogs may also miss bed bugs that are up high or on the ceiling, even if they are in plain sight. That’s not a failure in their training or scent detecting abilities; it’s simply because the scent is being pulled upward, away from the dog.

If you find an exterminator with a bed bug detecting canine, the infestation will need to be visually confirmed before treatment begins. It is possible for a dog to detect a false positive, but they can sniff out colonies hiding behind things like wall outlets that an exterminator may have missed.

CC Image courtesy of louento.pix

In the same vein, training your own dog to detect bed bug smells is a futile effort. You would need to regularly expose your dog to the smell, something you probably don’t want to do because that would require keeping bed bugs around for training. What you really want to do is get rid of the pests!


Now you’re armed with the information to detect bed bug smell. Remember though, just knowing what bed bugs smell like is not going to help you in treating an infestation. Check out my other articles to help you learn more signs of bed bug activity and what you can do to stop them.