What Are Chigger Bites?

These baby mites feed on skin, causing red bumps

Chiggers are tiny, biting pests that feed on skin and leave behind itchy, reddish bumps. They're active during warm weather and typically latch onto you when you move through their habitat, which is tall grass, weeds, and wooded areas, especially near water.

While annoying, chigger bites are fairly easy to treat. Better yet, you can take steps to prevent them.

This article describes what chiggers are, how they bite, and the symptoms they cause. It also explains how to treat and prevent chigger bites.

What Are Chiggers?

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

Chiggers are so small that you're unlikely to ever see them. And as small as the mites are, their larvae are even tinier. You may not even be aware of them until you feel them bite you.

Interestingly, adults don't bite; only the larvae do. They usually latch onto clothing and then crawl around until they find a thin, vulnerable patch of skin to feed on.

Chiggers bite in the spring, summer, or fall, when temperatures are between 60 and 99 degrees F. They do not bite at other times.

Humans actually aren't the first feasting choice of chiggers, since people can easily brush them away. Birds and reptiles are the preferred prey. But chiggers will grab onto any kind of "meal" they can find when they're hungry.

In North America, chiggers are relatively harmless. In Asia, chiggers can spread scrub typhus, a disease caused by bacteria. People with severe cases can develop organ failure and even die if the disease goes untreated.

How Chiggers Bite

Chiggers' mouths are similar to those of ticks, but smaller. They are so small, in fact, that they can't hold on very tight. This is why they're drawn to thinner skin, like where it folds and around the base of hair follicles. Armpits and groins meet both of these requirements.

Chiggers are also likely to strike at the top of socks and shoes, underneath a bra or waistband, at the back of the knees, in the crotch, and in the armpits. In other words, they know how to seek out vulnerable places.

Contrary to the popular myth, chiggers do not burrow into the skin or suck blood. Instead, they latch onto the surface of the skin and hang on for dear life.

When chiggers bite, they inject saliva into the skin. The saliva contains enzymes that liquefy skin cells. Then the chiggers suck out the liquid.

Chigger Bite Signs and Symptoms

The irritation from a chigger bite leads to itching. The bites are notorious for causing symptoms such as:

  • Scratching and burning near the ankles, groin, behind the knees, armpits, around the waist (near the belt line)
  • Severe itching that is most intense during the first 24 to 48 hours after a bite and that persists for several days
  • Red spots that may be raised or flat; they may sometimes look like blisters or red bumps and can last for up to two weeks

Signs of Infection

As with all bug bites, chigger bites can become infected. Scratching increases this risk. It's important to keep an eye on any bite, no matter how small.

Pus and crust around a bite after 24 hours can indicate impetigo, a highly contagious bacterial skin infection. Meanwhile, areas of redness, pain, swelling, and warmth can point to cellulitis, a potentially serious bacterial skin infection.

When to Call a Healthcare Provider

If you see signs of an infection or your bites don't seem to be getting better, call your healthcare provider. Seek emergency medical attention for a serious infection or signs of an allergic reaction (such as difficulty breathing, wheezing, or a spreading rash).

Treating Chigger Bites

Your first priority should be getting rid of the chiggers to keep more bites from occurring. Then you can focus on soothing your symptoms.

Give Chiggers the Brush-Off

When you first become aware of a bite, chances are the chiggers are still on your skin. You can get rid of them by simply brushing them away.

If you haven't already started itching, take a warm shower or bath. Then follow it with a vigorous skin massage. If you have started itching, be forewarned that showering or bathing probably won't provide much relief at this point.

Launder the clothes you were wearing at the time you were bitten with hot, soapy water.

Soothe Chigger Bites

In addition to applying calamine lotion or cortisone cream, you can ease the itch of chigger bites by:

  • Applying baby oil, cold cream, or petroleum jelly
  • Taking an oatmeal bath with colloidal oatmeal, which is crushed oat grain
  • Placing a cold compress, ice pack, or a bag of frozen vegetables on the area
  • Using Chigarid, a topical treatment sold at many pharmacies that combines camphor, menthol and phenol
  • Taking an allergy medication

Note that some calamine lotions and cortisone creams are mixed with an anithistamine. While they may offer better relief than versions that don't contain one, be aware that you should never use an oral and a topical antihistamine at the same time.

Mostly, though, you'll just have to tough it out. It may take up to two weeks for the itching to stop.

If you feel the need to itch despite these strategies, try tapping your skin instead of scratching it.

Spare yourself the time and trouble of trying to "suffocate" mites with bleach, clear nail polish, or rubbing alcohol. These tactics won't work because mites don't burrow in the skin.

Prevent Chigger Bites

Prevent and Treat Chigger Bites

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

It's not difficult to prevent chigger bites, but you do have to turn yourself into an uninviting host so they'll leave you alone:

  • Wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants tucked into your boots or shoes.
  • Wear the heaviest clothing you can tolerate, given weather conditions.
  • Apply a bug spray containing DEET (diethyl toluamide) or picaridin to your clothing, from your feet up. Reapply the spray every two to three hours.

Once you return home:

  • Check your skin for bites.
  • Wash off your skin just in case chiggers have attached themselves.
  • Wash your clothes (and any other garments, blankets, or towels that may have touched the ground) in hot, soapy water.

Keep Up With Yardwork

Chigger infestations are less common in yards where the grass is cut short and the vegetation is well-trimmed.

Summary

Chiggers are the larvae of harvest mites. They are very tiny, so you're unlikely to notice them unless they bite you.

Chiggers attach to the surface of the skin and inject saliva when they bite. The saliva contains enzymes that liquefy skin cells. The chiggers then suck out the liquid. Scratching and burning, severe itching, and red spots are signs you've been bitten.

Chigger bites can become infected, and scratching increases the risk of infection. Wash them off and apply an over-the-counter lotion like calamine to find relief.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long do chiggers live?


    They're unlikely to survive more than two days because they tend to end up falling off the skin.

  • How do you get rid of chiggers?

    Simply brush them away. If you're not sure you've been exposed or bitten, get into a bath or shower to try to reduce the number of bites.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. University of Maryland Extension. About chiggers.

  2. Allina Health. How to identify and treat chigger bites.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Scrub typhus.

  4. Jang MS, Kim CM, Kim DM, et al. Comparison of preferred bite sites between mites and ticks on humans in KoreaAm J Trop Med Hyg. 2016;95(5):1021–1025. doi:10.4269/ajtmh.16-0186.

  5. University of Missouri Extension. Chiggers.

  6. Texas A&M Extension. Chiggers.

  7. Juckett G. Arthropod bites. Am Fam Physician. 2013 Dec 15;88(12):841-7. PMID: 24364549.

  8. Iowa State University. Extension and Outreach. Chiggers.

  9. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Chiggers.

Additional Reading
  • University of Missouri Extension. Chiggers.

By Rod Brouhard, EMT-P
Rod Brouhard is an emergency medical technician paramedic (EMT-P), journalist, educator, and advocate for emergency medical service providers and patients.