Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus) are insects that feed every 5 to 10 days, primarily on the blood of humans. They’re typically active at night and their bites often result in itchy bumps on your skin.

Although they’re not known to spread disease, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) — consider them to be a public health pest.

Here’s how to keep bed bugs out of your bed and home.

Bed bugs will get into your home by traveling in on:

  • your family’s and visitor’s clothes
  • luggage
  • boxes
  • used furniture
  • unclean bedding

The EPA suggests a number of precautions you can take to help prevent bed bugs from infesting your home, including:

  • Before allowing secondhand furniture into the house, check for signs of bed bugs (bed bugs can live a year or more without food).
  • Put a protective cover on your mattress and box spring.
  • Consider getting a mattress cover that has been pretreated with pesticide.
  • Consider getting a plain, light-colored mattress cover that makes it easier to spot bed bugs.
  • Be careful and vigilant if using shared laundry facilities.
  • Vacuum frequently.
  • Reduce clutter.

Prevention tips when traveling

You don’t want to bring bed bugs home from a trip. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests some precautions to consider when traveling, including:

  • Avoid putting your luggage on the bed. Consider putting your suitcase on a luggage rack that has been moved away from the wall or in a dry bathtub.
  • Bring a flashlight and use it to check for signs of bed bugs. Along with the bedding, check the edges and seams of the mattress, box spring, and bed frame.
  • Check furniture near the bed, such as the nightstands.

If you spot the signs of bed bugs, immediately inform your host or hotel management.

When you come home from traveling

Upon your return:

  • Keep the clothes you traveled with separate and wash them in hot water immediately.
  • Vacuum your luggage and then, outside, empty the contents of the vacuum into a plastic bag. Seal the bag tightly and throw it away in an outside garbage bin.

Beyond seeing the bugs themselves, the signs of a bed bug infestation include:

  • Rusty stains on your bedding, caused by bed bugs being squashed.
  • Small, dark spots on your bedding. Bed bug poop resembles a small dot made with a pen. It may bleed into the fabric similar to making a marker dot on fabric.
  • Tiny white eggs or eggshells, about the size of a pinhead (about 1 millimeter).
  • Small, yellowish-white skins, shed by the young as they grow.

Know what you’re looking for

Adult bed bugs:

  • are about 3/16 to 1/4 inch long (similar to the size of an apple seed)
  • often have a musty odor
  • if they haven’t fed recently, are brown with a flat, oval-shaped body
  • if they have fed recently, have a reddish-brown color and a rounder, balloon-like body

Young bed bugs (nymphs):

  • are smaller than the adults
  • are a translucent yellowish-white color
  • if they haven’t fed recently, are almost impossible to see with your naked eye

Where to look for them

Bed bugs aren’t large and can fit in small hiding spots. To give you an idea of their size, the EPA indicates that if you can fit a credit card in a crack, there’s room for a bed bug.

Bed bugs will commonly hide around your bed:

  • on the mattress and box spring in crevices created by seams, tags, and piping
  • in cracks in the headboard and bed frame

If you have a heavy infestation, they can be found away from the bed:

  • in the seams and between cushions in chairs and couches
  • in the folds of curtains
  • under wall hangings
  • at the junction of the wall and the ceiling
  • under loose wallpaper
  • in drawer joints
  • in electrical outlets

Bed bugs will travel up to 20 feet from hiding places to feed.

There are a number of ways to try to prevent bed bugs. These include:

  • taking precautions when traveling
  • checking secondhand furniture
  • using a protective cover on your mattress and box spring
  • vacuuming frequently

If, even after being careful, you discover bed bugs in your home, act quickly. You want to get rid of the bed bugs in the early stages of infestation. The longer they’re in your home, the more difficult it will be to clear them out.