How to Recognize and Treat Chigger Bites

Mite Bites with Pictures

Chiggers are the larvae (babies) of harvest mites or Trombiculidae. Closely related to ticks, these mites are arachnids, part of the same family that includes spiders and scorpions.

Chiggers don't bite like ticks, but they have similar ​mouth parts. Their smaller mouths cannot hold on very tight, which means they usually go for thinner skin. They don't prefer humans because we're big bullies. We easily brush or wash chiggers away when they bite us (when we can catch them in the act), something their preferred prey—birds and reptiles—don't do.

Hidden Chiggers

Chigger under magnification.
Getty Images/Lester V. Bergman

Chiggers are so small, you are unlikely to ever see them. The way you're most likely going to find them is by finding their bites.

More than a few chiggers can fit on the head of a pin. The larvae, which are even smaller, do the biting. Since they're that small, prevention is the key to avoiding these things. If you do see an "adult chigger" (a mite), it might be too late. Chiggers lay eggs in the spring and summer, and that's when you're likely to be bitten.

Recognizing Chigger Bites

chigger bite after 10 days.
M. A. Parsons / PHIL

Chiggers prefer to bite vulnerable places, like folds of skin and the areas around the bases of hair follicles. Armpits and groins meet both of those requirements. When they bite, they inject saliva. The saliva contains enzymes that liquefy skin cells (yuck) and the chiggers suck out the liquid.

When chiggers bite you, your body reacts by hardening the cells up against the bite, which creates a tube. The tube acts as a perfect straw to help the chigger as it continues to suck out your liquid skin. It's all kind of gross to most people, but other than irritating your skin and making you itch, it's not going to harm you.

The irritation that triggers the body to fight back and harden the area is what leads to itching, and itch it does. Chigger bites are well known for severe itching and creating red, raised bumps. The bumps cover large areas around the ankles, groin, armpits and around the waist near the belt line.

In North America, chiggers are harmless other than the itching. In Asia, on the other hand, chiggers can spread scrub typhus.

Preventing Chigger Bites

The good news is that if you use a bug spray containing DEET, it will prevent chigger bites. Even if you wear socks and hiking shoes, use bug spray with DEET on any exposed skin. To be fair, flip-flops are not going to provide any protection from bigger threats like snakes, which often live in the same type of environment where chiggers hang out. It's a good idea to combine shoes, socks, and spray when you're enjoying the outdoors.

Treating Chigger Bites

Chigger bites can become scaly and may continue to itch for several days after the bites first appear. Like many things, the best cure is prevention (spray with DEET). If the chiggers do manage to bite you, get rid of them by washing and then work on getting relief from the itching.

Wash Them Off

When you first notice the bites, chances are the chiggers are still on your skin, feasting away. Get rid of chiggers by washing them off. Lather up the area with warm water and soap and rinse it off. Repeat the soap treatment at least once to get all the chiggers.

If you don't have access to warm, soapy water, rub down with a clean cloth or towel. It doesn't take much to knock off feeding chiggers.

Itch Relief

Over-the-counter lotions like calamine with or without Benadryl (diphenhydramine) can be used to try to stop the itching, but mostly you'll just have to wait it out. It should take 10-14 days for the itching to go away.

Look for Infection

chigger bite
CDC / M. A. Parsons

Chigger bites have just as much chance of getting infected as any other bug bite. The most important thing about this photo is the ruler behind the chigger bite. Notice how small the entire blister is—about 5 millimeters. It's important to keep an eye on any bite that blisters, even a tiny chigger bite.

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Article Sources
  • Bicknese, Nina. "Chiggers!" MDC Online. Missouri Department of Conservation. 29 Jul 2008