What Do Chigger Bites Look Like

Most of the more common bug bites and stings are harmless. But some do require medical attention. Here’s how to know what to do about them.

How to Prevent and Treat Chigger Bites

You might be out for a stroll in the park with your kids. Or maybe enjoying an afternoon on the golf course. That outdoor fun, though, sometimes comes with a price — an itchy rash from pests you can’t even see.

They’re called chiggers — bugs so small you need a magnifying glass to spot them. They aren’t dangerous, but their bites can leave you with a powerful urge to scratch.

Don’t let them get the best of you! Learn how to soothe your irritated skin and find out how to prevent bites the next time you go outside.

What Are Chiggers and Where Do They Lurk?

Scientists call these creatures “trombiculid mites.” But they have a bunch of nicknames. You might hear people call them harvest mites, harvest bugs, harvest lice, mower’s mites, or red bugs.

Technically, these critters aren’t insects. They’re “arachnids,” in the same family as spiders and ticks.

man trying new shoes

You can travel across the globe, but you can’t escape these pests. Chiggers live in every country. Their favorite spots are moist, grassy areas like fields, forests, and even your lawn. You can also find them near lakes and streams.

Adult chiggers don’t bite. It’s the babies, called larvae, that you have to watch out for. They’re red, orange, yellow, or straw-colored, and no more than 0.3 millimeters long.

After they hatch from eggs, the babies don’t fly and don’t travel very far on their own. They tend to stay clumped together in large groups on leaves and grass, usually less than a foot off the ground, and attach to animals or people as they pass by.

In the U.S., chigger bites are most common in the late spring, summer, and early fall. The bugs are active when the ground temperature is between 77 and 86 degrees F, and they die when it gets colder than 42.

What to Expect From a Chigger Bite

Once chiggers latch onto your pants or shirt, they crawl around until they find a patch of skin. There, they use sharp, jaw-like claws to make tiny holes. Next, they inject saliva that turns some of your cells into mush.

Why do they do it? To a chigger, those liquefied cells are food. When they get on you, they can stay attached to your skin for several days while they eat.

Chigger bites can happen anywhere on your body, but they often show up in clusters around the waist or lower legs. You may not notice anything wrong at first, but in a few hours you’ll start to itch.

The itching usually lasts for several days and can sometimes keep you awake at night. You may also notice that your skin turns red and has bumps, blisters, or a hive-like rash that may take a week or two to heal.

If you get a chigger bite on your penis, you could get a condition known as “summer penile syndrome.” It causes swelling, itching, and trouble peeing. This can last for a few days to a few weeks.

Chiggers don’t spread diseases but scratching could break the skin and lead to irritation or an infection.

If you have travelled internationally, be aware that the bacteria Orientia tsutsugamushi from bites of infected chiggers (larval mites) can cause scrub typhus. Most cases are reported from exposure to chiggers in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, China, Japan, India and northern Australia. See a doctor if this is the case.

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What to Do if You Get Bites

If you think you’ve been around some chiggers, give yourself a full body check. You may be able to see tiny red dots, either moving very quickly or attached to your skin.

Your first step: Take a bath or shower and scrub your skin with soap and water. This washes off any chiggers that are still on you.

Using hot water, wash your clothes and any blankets or towels that touched the ground to kill any bugs that are still hanging on.

Then treat your bites with an over-the-counter anti-itch cream or ointment, like menthol, calamine lotion, or hydrocortisone. You can also get relief if you take antihistamine pills or use a cold compress.

Chigger bites usually get better on their own. But if yours are still bothering you after a few days, see your doctor. In rare cases, you may need steroid shots to calm itching and swelling. Your doctor may also ask you to take antibiotics if your bites become infected.

How to Prevent Bites

When you spend time outdoors in grassy areas, use an insect repellent that has DEET or wear clothing treated with an insecticide like permethrin. As you put on bug spray, pay special attention to areas where chiggers might travel from clothing to skin, like cuffs, necklines, and the top edges of socks.

Some studies show that natural sprays may help keep chiggers away. Try ones that have oils made from citronella, tea tree, jojoba, eucalyptus, geranium, or lemon grass.

And of course, don’t make yourself an easy target for a hungry chigger. Wear long sleeves and long pants, with your pant legs tucked into long socks.

These simple tips lower your odds of getting chigger bites. Then you can enjoy the great outdoors — itch-free!

Show Sources

American Association of Veterinary Parasitologists: “Chiggers Trombiculid Mites.”

UpToDate: “Chigger Bites.”

University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Center: “Chiggers.”

Clemson University: “Chiggers.”

Missouri Department of Conservation: “Chiggers.”

Juckett, G. American Family Physician, December 2013.

University of Minnesota Extension: “Control of scabies and chiggers on humans.”

How to Know When It’s a Chigger Bite

Markham Heid

Sometimes called “berry bugs” or “red bugs,” chiggers populate large sections of the United States — including all of the South, the Great Plains, and the Mid-Atlantic. Though they’re 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.

“Chiggers are a type of immature mite that spend time feeding on small mammals, and also on humans,” says Lee Townsend, PhD, a professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Dr. Townsend 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.

Chigger Bites Look a Lot Like Other Bug Bites, So Here’s How to Correctly ID Them

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.

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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, PhD, 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. (1) If you have a swath of itchy skin lumps that looks like many mosquito bites or welts, it’s a good bet you’re dealing with chiggers. (2)

Another characteristic of these bites: chiggers like to gather in areas that are hot and sweaty — like the insides of socks, at waistlines, 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.

How to Identify Common Bug Bites and Stings

Most of the more common bug bites and stings are harmless. But some do require medical attention. Here’s how to know what to do about them.

Identify Bug Bites

What Can I Do to Treat Chigger Bites and Relieve the Itching?

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. (3) “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, he says.) Applying topical calamine cream can also help reduce the itch, he adds. So can cold compresses, oral antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or cetirizine (Zyrtec), and rubbing alcohol. (4)

Do you need to see a doctor? In most cases, no. “Chiggers can transmit diseases in some other parts of the world, but not here,” Townsend says of domestic chiggers.

That said, 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, has developed a yellow, golden crust, or has become painful, or if you’re experiencing hives, vomiting, or nausea — see a doctor. (5)

Doctors can prescribe prescription topical steroids or even inject dilute steroids into intensely itchy bites if you don’t experience relief from over-the-counter options.

Yes, You Can Avoid Getting Chigger Bites and Still Enjoy the Outdoors

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. (6)

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. 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.

And again, taking a hot, soapy shower after you’ve been in chigger-infested areas can help remove them before they cause skin irritation, Townsend says.

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.

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Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for his studies of ageing, genetics and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics NAS of Ukraine. His scientific researches are printed by the most reputable international magazines. Some of his works are: Differences in the gut Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio across age groups in healthy Ukrainian population [BiomedCentral.com]; Mating status affects Drosophila lifespan, metabolism and antioxidant system [Science Direct]; Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum Increases Lifespan, Stress Resistance, and Metabolism by Affecting Free Radical Processes in Drosophila [Frontiersin].
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