Chiggers are tiny larvae members of the arachnid family and are sometimes called red bugs or berry bugs. Chiggers populate large sections of the United States, including all of the South, the Great Plains, and the Mid-Atlantic. Though they are often bright red in color, chiggers are only about the size of a grain of salt, making them almost impossible to spot either in the wild or on a person’s skin. Dr. Lee Townsend, an extension professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, refers to Chiggers as a type of immature mite that spends time feeding on small mammals, and also on humans. He says that there are many different species of mites, but only a few types that bite during their larval stage. It’s these that are referred to as chiggers. “Not all mites are chiggers, but all chiggers are mites,” he adds.
Unlike mosquitoes, ticks, and other biting bugs, chiggers don’t attach themselves to mammals in order to suck blood. Instead, chiggers feast on skin cells and tissue, Townsend explains. But much like mosquitoes and ticks, chiggers can induce a nasty skin reaction. That reaction, he says, comes from the chigger’s saliva, which they use to break down and digest the cells and tissues they devour. Although the larvae are extremely small in size, their bites pack a powerful punch. They’re so tiny that you probably won’t notice when they jump from that tall blade of grass onto your skin. You won’t feel it as they hitch a ride right into your home. When you eventually do feel them, however, they can be extremely itchy.
Where Can You Encounter Chiggers?
Chiggers live in tall weeds and grass, in berry patches, and in wooded areas. They may be in your backyard, by the lake, and clustered along your favorite hiking trail. They are most active in spring, summer and fall afternoons when temperatures are warm and inviting. These bugs can quickly attach to your skin if you walk by and brush up against vegetation where they live. When the temperature falls below 60°F (16°C), chiggers become inactive. They die off when the temperature falls below 42°F (6°C).
A Closer Look at Chiggers
Chiggers are very tiny and it generally takes a magnifying glass to see them. Adults are about 1/60 of an inch and have eight legs. The larvae are red, wingless, six-legged creatures that measure less than 1/150 of an inch. Because of their red color, you might be able to spot the larvae when they cluster together. After they feast on human skin, they turn a yellowish color.
Characteristics of Chigger Bites
Chigger bites look a lot like other bug bites. As with all bug bites, there’s some person-to-person variation when it comes to chigger bites. “Different people react differently to bites, so it can be really difficult to tell the difference between bites of things like mosquitoes from chiggers,” Townsend says. Especially if you’re bitten by a lone chigger, the red welt that forms may look more or less identical to a mosquito bite.
But there are bite characteristics that can show up that can help differentiate chiggers from other bugs. For one thing, chigger bites tend to take itchiness to a whole new level. “I don’t know of many things as intensely itchy as a chigger bite,” says Michael Merchant, Ph.D., a professor of entomology at Texas A&M University in Dallas. Also, chiggers tend to latch onto a person’s skin in groups. You won’t be able to see them without the aid of a magnifying glass. But you may feel some irritation when they first start feeding. And the resulting bites often appear as clusters of red welts, as opposed to a single itchy lump or a red rash. If you have a swath of itchy skin lumps that look like many mosquito bites or welts, it’s a good bet you’re dealing with chiggers.
Likes It Hot & Sweaty
Another characteristic of these bites: chiggers like to gather in areas that are hot and sweaty like the insides of socks, at beltlines, inside armpits, or behind the knees, Dr. Merchant says. “If you see a pattern of bites only where your sock was, that’s probably chiggers,” he adds. While itchy and uncomfortable not to mention unsightly, chigger bites tend to resolve on their own within a week and often within a few days. “Once they’re done feeding, chiggers drop off on their own,” Townsend says. He recommends taking a hot shower and soaping the area thoroughly. This can remove chiggers before they’ve had the chance to cause welts and irritation. Applying topical calamine cream can also help reduce the itch, he adds. So can cold compresses, oral antihistamines like Benadryl or Zyrtec, and rubbing alcohol.
Risk of Secondary Infection
Chigger bites can put a person at risk for a secondary infection. That could happen if you scratch the bite or bites and break open the skin, allowing in bacteria, Merchant says. If the swelling or redness around a bite is getting worse several days after it first appeared, or if you notice a fever or other flu-like symptoms, those may be signs of an infection. The same is true if the bite is leaking fluid or has become painful, or if you’re experiencing hives, vomiting, or nausea — see a doctor.
SYMPTOMS OF CHIGGER BITES
Only the larvae bite humans. They tend to choose warm, moist areas of the body. Chiggers have claws that help them grab onto the skin. The chigger then attaches its mouth to the skin and injects saliva. The saliva contains an enzyme that breaks skin cells down to liquid form. Your body responds by hardening skin cells around the saliva, creating a tube, or a stylostome through which the chigger sucks the host’s body fluids. Chiggers can stay attached and feeding for several days. Usually, they last about 4 days before falling off.
Usually, several chiggers are able to latch onto a person walking through an infected area. When the chigger falls off, you are left with reddish bumps. You may notice a bright red dot in the center, this is a remnant of the tube your skin formed in response to the chigger’s saliva. The bumps may look like welts, blisters, pimples, or hives. Chiggers can stay latched to the same spot for several days, and it’s common to be bitten by more than one. So bites will generally appear in groups and get larger for several days to a week.
In folds of skin
Many insects tend to bite exposed skin that’s easy to get to. Chiggers like to bite in folds of skin as well as places where clothing fits tightly. Most chigger bites occur around the ankles, waist, armpits, crotch, or behind the knees.
You won’t feel it when the chigger latches on, and you probably won’t feel a thing when it bites. However, most people report symptoms within hours of the bite. The most problematic symptom of chigger bites is the intense itching and desire to scratch. Chigger bites on the penis can cause severe itching, swelling, and painful urination.
It can take anywhere from one to three weeks for chigger bites to heal. If you suspect you have chigger bites, immediately wash with soap and water. This will get rid of any remaining chiggers on your body. Then, apply an antiseptic to any welts.
In the meantime, try to avoid scratching, as this can cause infection. You may use over-the-counter anti-itch medications like hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion. You can also apply ice to the bites to relieve the itch. If you become infected or symptoms don’t improve, see your doctor. It’s a common misperception that chiggers burrow under the skin. They don’t, so there is no need to try to remove them.
HEALTH RISKS OF CHIGGER BITES
Chigger bites are uncomfortable, itchy, annoying, and can make it difficult to sleep. In most cases, chigger bites don’t cause any harm to your health. Chiggers feed on skin cells, but not on blood. They don’t carry or transmit disease. However, chigger bites can become infected from too much scratching. Notify your doctor if you have swelling, fever, or other signs of infection.
HOW TO AVOID CHIGGER BITES
Wear protective attire
Spring, summer, and fall are prime time for chigger bites. When you’re in wooded areas that may be chigger-infested, try not to brush up against vegetation. When hiking, walk in the center of trails, rather than along the sides. Wear long sleeves and long pants that can be tucked into your socks or shoes. Use insect or tick repellent, especially around the tops of your shoes, shirt neck, cuffs, and waistband. Shower as soon as you go indoors. Wash your clothes in hot water.
Avoid where they lurk
Chiggers usually live in shaded or overgrown areas like forests and wild fields, Townsend says. “They need shelter from the sun and they like high humidity, so they tend to like tall grasses and places where there are mice and small mammals around,” he says. “You’re not going to run into many of them out in mowed or landscaped areas.” For that reason, keeping yards or outdoor areas well-tended and free of overgrowth and brush are effective ways to keep chigger populations to a minimum. Staying on walking paths – as opposed to making your way through tall grass or wilder areas — is another way to avoid picking up chiggers. If you’re going to be tramping through woods or picking fruit in a field, those are times when you’ll want to take extra precautions to guard yourself against chiggers.
Use repellents and take a shower
Townsend recommends wearing long pants and tucking them into your socks. “Repellents also help,” he says, mentioning common types like DEET, which is also used to repel mosquitoes and ticks. Be sure to use those repellents on your shoes and lower legs — places chiggers tend to latch on. Taking a hot, soapy shower after you’ve been in chigger-infested areas can help remove them before they cause skin irritation. Chiggers are a nuisance and their bites can be incredibly itchy. But if you can resist scratching those bites, they don’t cause any long-term issues or health complications.