Bed Bug Identification Guide: ​How To Identify Them Correctly

  • Written By Dan Edwards on December 18, 2017
    Last Updated: December 18, 2020

You’ve undoubtedly heard of bed bugs and what a nuisance they can be. But if you’ve ever eyed your hotel bed suspiciously wondering if you were going to end up with bed bug bites just from sleeping in it, you might wonder if you’d even know a bed bug if you saw it. This article will teach you how to identify bed bugs so they’ll never catch you unaware.

What Do Bed Bugs Look Like?

Bed bugs are flat-looking, oval-shaped insects. They don’t have any wings, which is a good thing because they’re pesky enough without having the ability to fly. They are brown, but they can take on a dark reddish hue after feeding off of your blood.

A feeding bed bug – CC Image courtesy of AFPMB

They aren’t big bugs – adults grow to lengths of 4 to 5 millimeters, which is smaller than the eraser you’d find at the end of a pencil.

Bed Bug Size
CC Image courtesy of British Pest Control Association

Nymphs, or baby bed bugs, are much harder to spot. They are only about as big as a pinhead and they remain white or light tan until they have a meal. If you see something that looks like a light-colored apple seed, you should be highly suspicious that it’s a baby bed bug.

CC Image courtesy of louento.pix
CC Image courtesy of louento.pix

Signs That Help With Bed Bug Identification

If you see a bug and you’re still not sure if you’re dealing with a bed bug or some other insect, don’t panic. No one expects you to be an entomologist.

There are other signs you can look for to help you reach a conclusion about what kind of bug you’re dealing with.

Visual Appearance

If you see what you believe to be a bed bug, break out the magnifying glass and see if it has what looks like wing pads on its body, with no actual wings attached. Bed bugs do have wing pads, even though they don’t grow wings.

CC Image courtesy of AFPMB

You can also use visual appearances on your mattress to help you identify bed bugs. They can leave behind tiny blood spots after they feed on you, as well as dark, tiny smudge marks on your mattress from the excrement they leave behind.

Bed Bug Stains
Blood stains from where a bed bug gets squashed shortly after feeding – CC Image courtesy of louento.pix

The excrement stains will look like they are bleeding into the fabric, like you took a marker and started drawing spots on your mattress. If you’re dealing with a big infestation, you may notice a lot of these marks.

CC Image courtesy of AFPMB

Bed Bug Bites

If you notice some red, itchy marks on your skin, they may be bed bug bites. Not everyone reacts to bed bug bites and they may not even cause symptoms until a few days after the bites happen.

Bed Bug Bites

When people do react to bed bug bites, you can often identify them by how the bites are usually grouped closely together. There isn’t a uniform size for bed bug bites since the sensitivities people have to them vary.

Bed bug bites will often appear on areas of your body that aren’t covered by clothes when you’re sleeping. Bare legs, arms, necks, and faces are some of their favorite targets. It’s easier for a bed bug to access bare skin than try to go under your clothes.

Don’t jump to conclusions that you may have a bed bug problem if you wake up with a few bites, however. Other insect marks can also resemble those from bed bugs, such as flea bites.

Bed Bug Bites

Bed Bug Smells

Bed bugs have a distinct odor – although it isn’t overwhelming, it is noticeable. And it’s not a good smell either. It can be reminiscent of damp, moldy clothes. Some people compare it to the smell of the herb, coriander.

The stronger the smell, the more of an issue you’ll have with bed bugs. As you can imagine, a few bugs won’t produce nearly as strong of a smell as hundreds of bugs will.

Bed Bug Casings

In order to make the jump from nymphs to adult bed bugs, a nymph has to shed its skin five times. When it does this, it leaves behind its exoskeleton, or casing. This can give you further proof that you’re dealing with a bed bug infestation.

When you look for casings, focus your attention on crevices where the bed bugs might hide, like along your mattress seams. While you’ll find the other signs like blood and feces on any part of your mattress, the casings will be harder to spot. You’ll need to do some investigative work to locate them.

CC Image courtesy of louento.pix

The casings will look like a bed bug, but lighter in color. They’ll still be in the shape of a bed bug. And they’ll come in varying sizes, depending upon which stage of development the nymph was in when it shed its skin.

Even better, you may be able to find dead bed bugs, which should confirm you have bed bugs in the house.

How To Get Rid Of Bed Bugs With DIY Treatment Methods

Hiring pest control professionals can be costly, and while it’s usually the best option, there are some preliminary steps you can take to get rid of bed bugs yourself.

1. Carefully bag and wash all of your bedding and clear any clutter around the room. Bed bugs love to hide in piles of clothes, so remove these and wash them before you start cleaning.

3. Use a high-powered vacuum to clean around the bed to take care of stray bugs and eggs. Using a vacuum with a HEPA filter is vital to ensure bed bugs cannot escape once captured. The Shark Navigator Upright Vacuum easily ticks all of the boxes while remaining lightweight and easily maneuverable.

4. Use a specialist, non-toxic bed bug spray to clean your bed-frame, headboard, and surrounding furniture. Bed Bug Patrol Bed Bug Killer is a completely natural spray that has a reported 100% kill rate against live bed bugs in controlled tests, and most importantly, it’s child and pet-friendly.

5. Pull your bed away from the walls and place bed bug interceptor cups under each leg. These will isolate your bed and help to prevent the spread of bed bugs. Additionally, interceptors can serve as tools to help you track progress. Ideally, the interceptors should contain fewer bed bugs every time you empty them. My favorites are these Bed Bug Blocker Interceptor Traps.

6. Using a bed bug mattress protector to encase your mattress will either help to save it if it’s yet to be infested, or otherwise keep bed bugs trapped in and around it until they eventually die of starvation. My favorite is the SureGuard Mattress Encasement which is thick, strong, and will help to stop bed bugs of all sizes from getting to, or from, your mattress. A SureGuard Box Spring Encasement is also available.

7. If you wish to be extremely thorough, specialist bed bug heaters can be purchased to raise household items to a temperature that is sure to kill all bed bugs and eggs. ZappBug is the most popular option, and is designed to automatically reach the all-important killing temperature to eradicate all stages of the bed bugs life cycle. Large and small versions are also available.

Bed Bug Mattress Cover

If In Doubt – Call An Expert

Unlike you, experts have no doubt when they run into a bed bug. That’s because they see them frequently in their line of work because bed bugs have been around a long time and have been a growing problem in recent years.

They’ll know them the second they see them – and they’ll know where to look for them because they’re well-acquainted with a bed bug’s hiding spots. They should also be able to pick them out over other bugs that look like them.

Professionals also may have some help in finding bed bugs too, from a four-legged friend trained to hone in on the smell they emit. They may bring in a bed bug sniffing dog who can detect bed bugs – even if there aren’t very many of them in a house. A well-trained sniffing dog should be able to tell the difference between live bugs compared to old infestations.

Dog detection isn’t a fool-proof method though. If the bed bugs are hiding above the dog’s head and the flow of the air is going up instead of down, the dog might miss the smell entirely. But on the other hand, dogs may find some of the bed bugs that it’s harder for professionals to find, such as the ones hiding behind baseboards in your bedroom.

Finally, if you would like a 100% affirmative bed bug confirmation – you will need to send a sample away to an entomologist (insect scientist), who will inspect the specimen and report back to you.


Now that you know how to identify bed bugs, you might be better equipped to recognize them when you see a bug roaming around your bedroom. If you’re still not sure, even after reading this, your best bet is to contact a professional. If it is a bed bug infestation, you’ll be needing their help anyway.