What Does Termite Damage Look Like?

closeup of termites nest and termites damage

Termites can cause significant damage to homes and landscapes if they are not detected and treated promptly. To help protect your home, this guide will explain how to identify what termite damage looks (and sounds) like, including sagging floors, small holes in drywall, and hollow-sounding wood.  

We’ll also help you differentiate between termite damage and damage from water, wood rot, and carpenter ants. If you think you may have termites, fear not. We have the information you need to help determine what is bugging your home.

Signs of Termite Damage

shelter tubes Photo originally from the Wood Products Insect Lab in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Photo Credit: USDA Forest Service – Wood Products Insect Lab , USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org / Ipmimages

In general, signs you may have termite damage include:

  • Sagging or buckling floors: These can indicate structural damage caused by termites.
  • Wooden surfaces sound hollow when tapped on.
  • Maze-like patterns on wooden surfaces, such as furniture or walls.
  • Small holes in drywall or wallpaper. Termites can create entry points through these materials. Also, look out for mud spots and peeling or blisters in paint.
  • Mud tubes that run along walls, foundations, crawl spaces, or in places that are invisible, such as behind walls or baseboards.

Types of Termites That Cause Damage

There are over 3,000 species of termites worldwide, with over 40 species found in the United States. Remember that control and prevention measures vary by species, so it is essential to have a professional accurately identify the termites before taking any action.

The most common types of termites in the United States are subterranean, drywood, dampwood, and higher termites. Read below for more information on each:

Subterranean termites on ground
Native subterranean termites (Reticulitermes virginicus)
Photo Credit: Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University, Bugwood.org / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

Subterranean termites: These termites live in underground colonies in moist soil and construct mud tubes to reach food sources above ground. They are the most destructive type of termites in the U.S. Termites of this species can be found almost anywhere in the U.S. but are most common in the Southeast, California, and Hawaii.

Drywood termites closeup
Western drywood termite (Incisitermes minor)
Photo Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Drywood termites:  Drywood termites infest dry wood and do not require contact with soil. They are common in coastal areas and can cause significant damage to wooden structures, leaving a maze-like pattern of tunnels through the wood. These termites inhabit the coastal or southern areas of states from North Carolina across to California.

closeup of Dampwood termites
Pacific dampwood termite (Zootermopsis angusticollis)
Photo Credit: Judy Gallagher / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Dampwood termites: These termites are attracted to high-moisture environments and primarily infest decaying wood, such as logs or stumps. Clogged or old gutters can damage your home with leaking water and draw these termites. You may notice small holes, but you won’t see any mud tubes. The Pacific and Nevada dampwood termites are found along the Pacific Coast and across to some interior Western states.

nasutitermes termite (Nasutitermes corniger)
Photo Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org / Ipmimages / CC BY 3.0 US

Higher termites (conehead): Signs that you may be dealing with coneheads (and their damage) include tunnels or mud tubes on trees, fences, houses, or other structures. Additionally, their nests may be seen in vegetation, structures, trees, or on the ground.

Termite Damage vs. Water Damage

Termite damage and water damage can both significantly impact structures, but there are key differences between the two. By understanding these differences, you can better identify and address potential damage caused by termites or water and take appropriate steps.

Sign of DamageTermite DamageWater Damage
Surface appearanceMay appear normal on outside but with and mud tubesNoticeable staining and warping
LocationCan infest both damp and dry areasTypically occurs in areas exposed to moisture (bathrooms, basements)
Wood patternMaze-like tunnels or galleries; can go with or against grainA square-shaped pattern in wood that resembles cells or alligator skin
Additional factorsThe presence of mud tubes, hollow-sounding wood, and small holesWater-damaged wood will rot, become crumbly, and smell musty

Termite Damage vs. Wood Rot

image showing termite damage and wood rot side by side
Photo Credits:
Termite Damage: frank600 / Canva Pro / License
Wood Rot: zmeel / Canva Pro / License

Wood rot is a form of decay that impacts wood structures. Unlike termite wood damage, wood rot is caused by fungi that break down the wood fibers. Wet rot is commonly found in areas with high moisture or water damage, while dry rot can also occur in dry lumber. 

Here are a few distinctions between termite damage and wood rot:

Sign of DamageTermite DamageWood Rot
Surface appearanceSmooth surfaces and mud tunnelsCrumbly with musty odor
LocationCan infest both damp and dry areasCan occur in dry or wet wood, often hidden under stairs or in attics
Wood patternMaze-like tunnels in the interior of the wood, exterior may appear normalWood shrinks in size
Additional factorsPresence of mud tubes, hollow-sounding wood, and small holesSpongy and soft to the touch; may crumble when pressure is applied

Termite Damage vs. Carpenter Ant Damage

image showing termite damage and carpenter ant damage side by side
Photo Credits:
Termite Damage: frank600 / Canva Pro / License
Carpenter Ant Damage: John M. Chase / Canva Pro / License

Carpenter ants not only cause damage to wooden structures but are one of a few other bugs that look like termites. But there are several ways to distinguish between termites and carpenter ants’ damage to wood:

Sign of DamageTermite DamageCarpenter Ant Damage
Surface appearanceMud tubes and rough-edged tunnelsSmooth tunnels and piles of sawdust
LocationCan occur in both damp and dry areas of a structurePrefers moist or decaying wood (sinks, windows, chimneys)
Wood patternMaze-like tunnels are jagged or roughExcavated tunnels for nests are smooth, sanded
Additional factorsWood that sounds hollow, mud tubes, and small holes can be foundPiles of wood dust, swarming ants, weakened wood

Physical Differences

illustration showing termite and ant illustration
Photo Credit: Juan Rodriguez

Termites and carpenter ants have different physical features. These distinctions include variations in wings, colors, bodies, and antennae:

  • Wings: Carpenter ants have shorter hind wings than their fore wings. On the other hand, termite wings are of equal size and are much longer than their bodies. Termite wings can vary in color, ranging from dark brown to gray, and they often shed or fall off.
  • Colors: Carpenter ants can be dark brown, black, reddish, or yellow in color. For termite workers, they are typically creamy white or transparent.
  • Bodies: Carpenter ants have three body segments (head, thorax, and abdomen) and a pinched waist. Termites also have three body segments, but they have a consistent width throughout their body.
  • Antennae: Carpenter ants have two bent antennae, while termites have straight antennae resembling beads.

Locations for Termite Damage

termite damage on wood
Photo Credits: P_Wei / Canva Pro / License

Termite damage often occurs in different areas of a property, as each termite species has its own preferences. Drywood termites are attracted to dry wood, while dampwood termites prefer wood exposed to moisture. If moist soil is nearby, wood that comes into contact with the ground is likely to be infested by subterranean termites.

Areas to check for termites include:

  • Wood structures: Termites eat wood and other materials with cellulose, including wood flooring. Wood structures provide lots of food for termites.
  • Attics and crawl spaces: Termites are attracted to areas with lots of moisture. Attics and crawl spaces often have high humidity, which creates perfect conditions for termites to thrive.
  • Basements and foundations: Termites can get in through cracks in the foundation or gaps in basement walls. These areas give them direct access to the building’s structural components.
  • Outdoor structures: Decks and fences made of wood are often attractive to termites. Since these structures are exposed to the elements, they can retain moisture and potentially attract termites.
  • Trees: Termite damage to trees can be very harmful to them. Termites can weaken or kill the tree. Give your trees a checkup to ensure they are healthy and termite-free.

Signs of Termite Infestation

A termite infestation can show up in different ways. By knowing these signs, homeowners can take necessary steps to prevent more damage.

Here are some telltale signs of a termite infestation:

  • Discarded wings near window sills and doors
  • Presence of frass, aka termite droppings; look like wood pellets and are often found around termite entry points
  • Swarming termites, especially during spring
  • Presence of mud tubes on walls or foundations. These are thin tunnels made by termites for protection and moisture.

FAQ: Termites and Termite Damage

What Do Termite Droppings Look Like?

Termite droppings, also known as frass, are typically small, measuring about 0.04 inches in length. Their color can vary from light beige to black, depending on the type of wood the termites have been feeding on. Termite excrement is oval-shaped and forms small mounds that resemble piles of dirt or sawdust. 

How Much Termite Damage is Beyond Repair?

Most termite damage is repairable, although in severe cases, it may require demolition and rebuilding of a home. The extent of irreparable damage depends on structural integrity, accessibility, and the need for wood replacement. It is vital to seek a professional assessment to determine the best course of action.

How to Tell Old Termite Damage From New?

If you notice damage but do not see live termites, swarmers, fresh mud tubes, or frass, there’s a good chance the termite damage is old. However, if you observe mud tubes, break off a section, and if it is repaired after a few days, it indicates an active termite infestation.

When to Call a Pro 

Contacting a professional for termite damage is highly recommended, especially if you are dealing with an ongoing infestation, significant damage that compromises the structural integrity of your property, or repeated infestations. 

Don’t hesitate to reach out to a local termite control expert. It is the best way to safeguard your home and prevent termite problems going forward.

Main Image Credits: phanasitti / Canva Pro / License

Raven Wisdom

Raven Wisdom is a writer with a passion for pest control, gardening, sustainable living, and making a positive impact in the world. When she's not defending her garden from critters in the wilds of West Texas, Raven can be found writing, wrangling two kids in a neurodivergent family, and supporting her local animal rescues.