What Do Chigger Bites Look Like?

You're most likely to be bitten during the summer months.

Spending time outside provides so many health benefits to your mind and your body, such as an extra dose of vitamin D which helps to keep immune systems strong. But spending 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 inches 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). The bugs usually feed on small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. But humans can become accidental hosts 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?

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, told Health.

What Do Chigger Bites Look Like?

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," said Dr. Anthony.

According to Dr. Anthony, the bites 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.

chiggers bites
Slturis / CC BY-SA

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 sk3in might become inflamed, Dr. Anthony says. The itching tends to subside within a week.

Treating Chigger Bites

This is a pretty common recommendation for bug bites: Do not scratch them. Fortunately, chigger bites don't pose a huge health risk. 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 healthcare provider or pharmacist.

Preventing Chigger Bites

Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to lessen your chances of getting bitten by chiggers. The first step is to determine whether your immediate yard (if you have a 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, told 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 said that wearing long pants can help you avoid bites, as can using some deet-containing repellent. You should make sure your insect repellent is appropriate for the activity you have planned, said Dr. Elliott. 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, said Dr. Anthony. 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. Dr. Anthony said the treatment should stay effective through a couple of washing cycles.

A Quick Review

Chigger bites, while not necessarily harmful to humans, can be incredibly itchy and frustrating. You can take preventative measures against chigger bites by wearing insect repellent, treating your clothes with permethrin, and being mindful in areas where chiggers may be expected. Whatever you do, don't let chiggers, or any insect, prevent you from enjoying time outside. With some awareness and preparation, you can have a pest-free time.

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