What Are Chigger Bites? We Asked a Dermatologist What You Need to Know
You've probably been outside more than usual this summer (thanks, coronavirus pandemic). But while your body is certainly thanking you for the extra dose of fresh air and vitamin D, spending more time in the great outdoors can come with some added nuisances, like insect bites.
One common bite offender during the summer months: chiggers. Commonly known as "red bugs," according to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH), chiggers are actually the parasitic larvae of mites. To even see chiggers—which are about 1/150" in length—you need a magnifying glass. The six-legged larvae with hairy bodies are normally red or orange in color, but after feeding on their host, they change to a yellowish color.
Humans aren't exactly the preferred host for chiggers (technically referred to as Trombicula alfreddugesi). They usually feed on small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, but humans can become an accidental host when they come into contact with chiggers in areas with weeds and tall grass, usually during late spring and summer.
What happens when a chigger bites you—and what do chigger bites look like?
According to the NYC DOH, there's a myth out there that chiggers burrow underneath the skin or suck blood—but neither of those rumors are true. Instead, chiggers pierce the skin and inject saliva into the bite, which contains a powerful digestive enzyme that essentially breaks down the affected skin, so the chigger can feed on it.
Chiggers don't stick around for a long time like mosquitos or ticks, so you likely won't notice when one takes you as its host. "Most people don't notice the actual bite," John Anthony, MD, a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health
What’s left behind after the bite is a little red dot, though you may not even notice it on your skin, unless you have quite a few on your body. “Chigger bites are actually pretty nondescript. They tend to be small, red bumps—hard to see, kind of welts,” Dr. Anthony says, adding that they may show up on the lower legs. the US National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus resource also says chiggers typically target the waist, ankles, and warm skin folds.
But while you might not feel—or subsequently notice—the bite itself, you’ll likely realize something’s up when the site starts itching like crazy. The intense itchiness can develop during the 24 hours following the bite, and the area where the bite is on your skin might become inflamed, Dr. Anthony says. The itching tends to subside within a week.
How can you treat chigger bites—and can they be prevented?
This is a pretty common recommendation for bug bites, but do not itch them. Fortunately, chigger bites don't pose a huge health risk, and the main concern is simply getting the inflammation and itching under control. That can be done with anti-itch medications and topical steroids, like over-the-counter pramoxine, which comes in spray and gel form. The NYC DOH also recommends benzocaine, hydrocortisone, calamine lotion, or other topical anti-itch creams, as recommended by your physician or pharmacist.
Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to lessen your chances of getting bitten by chiggers in the first place—and the first way is to determine whether your immediate yard is home to the bugs. The NYC DOH suggests placing a piece of black cardboard upright in a section of your lawn. If you have chiggers in your immediate area, they'll flock to the cardboard, and you'll see them as tiny pink dots moving across the cardboard. In that case, you can determine the best extermination method with a licensed pest control operator.
Another way to lessen your chances of getting a chigger bite (or any bug bite, for that matter) is simply by keeping your eyes open and paying attention. “Your environmental surroundings are a clue,” Tania Elliott, MD, who works in NYU Langone’s department of Infectious Disease, Allergy and Immunology, tells Health. This means wearing shoes in your backyard if you know there’s a good chance you’ll get bitten in it, and paying attention to where you’re walking and sitting anytime you’re outdoors.
When visiting areas where chiggers are a possibility, Dr. Anthony explains that wearing long pants can help you avoid bites, as can using some deet-containing repellent. Dr. Elliott says you should make sure your insect repellent is appropriate for the activity you have planned. For instance, if you're going hiking in the woods, consider a bug repellent like Cutter Backwoods Repellent. You might want to go a step further and treat some of your clothing with an insecticide called permethrin, Dr. Anthony says. If your outside time consists mainly of walking to and from your backyard pool, this might not be necessary, but if you’re doing a lot of hiking, buying some permethrin and treating your socks and pants with it can’t hurt. You can buy products that contain permethrin, a synthetic chemical, at outdoor gear stores, and Dr. Anthony says the treatment should stay effective though a couple of washing cycles.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter