If you’re a lover of the great outdoors, then you understand one nuisance all too well: There are a lot of insects to ward off. From mosquitoes to ticks, plenty of blood-sucking bugs are looking to get a taste of you—and chiggers are just another pest waiting for their chance, especially in the midwest, south, and southeast parts of the U.S.
Also known as berry bugs, red bugs, and harvest mites, chiggers are so small (think: 1/120-1/150 inch) that they’re hard to see with the naked eye. But if you’ve ever been bitten by one, you know the itch it leaves behind can be intense and incessant.
So, what’s the best way to deal with these parasites once spring hits? Here, we asked experts to break down what a chigger bite looks like, ways to treat and soothe the itch, and how to get rid of these berry bugs for good.
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What are chiggers, exactly?
“Chiggers are microscopic mites that are found in grassy areas, edges between lawns and forests, and on small mammals and birds,” says Michael J. Raupp, Ph.D., professor of entomology at The University of Maryland and creator of Bug of the Week. They tend to prefer damp, shady habitats.
Chiggers become most active during the late spring through early fall, and love to hitchhike onto your skin when you walk through an infested area. “On humans, chiggers usually move up to places around socks, tops of your pants, around the stomach and belt line, and under the bra,” Raupp says. Only the teeny-tiny, larval chiggers (a.k.a. babies!) bite humans.
What do chigger bites look like?
Chiggers do attach to and bite the skin, but contrary to popular belief, they don’t burrow into your skin or suck blood. Most commonly, you can find chigger bites around the ankles, wrists, thighs, groin, and waist. While they can be extremely uncomfortable, rest assured that chiggers aren’t known to carry or transmit any diseases to humans.
But the mechanism behind their bite is pretty crazy. Once the mite finds its host, the chigger secretes a digestive enzyme that breaks down your skin cells, causing the skin tissue to form a hardened, raised area that functions as a feeding tube. (This tube allows the mite to gain access to the digested skin cells.) After feeding for up to three days, the mite falls off. Cue the the relentless itching, which begins roughly three to six hours after the initial bite.
“Itching can last for up to two weeks,” says Raupp. “It’s your reaction to the protein secreted into your skin, which your body breaks down over time.”
In addition to the itching, you can identify a chigger bite by the way it looks. “On the skin, you might see either a flat, red patch or a raised, red bump, or sometimes even blisters or pustules,” says Rajani Katta, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist who serves as voluntary clinical faculty of both the Baylor College of Medicine and the McGovern Medical School, University of Texas Houston.
What’s the best way to treat a chigger bite?
The good news is that these pesky bites will resolve on their own after several days. However, you’ll probably be dying for some relief. Here are a few different treatment options for itchy skin:
OTC topical ointments: “Apply soothing over-the-counter products like menthol or calamine to reduce itch,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
You can also try an OTC hydrocortisone ointment to help reduce the redness and itching, says Dr. Katta. “This can be used twice a day for up to two weeks to the area, although usually the symptoms will resolve before then.”
OTC oral meds: “For some people, taking an antihistamine by mouth, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), can help with the itching, although it does cause drowsiness,” says Dr. Katta.
Cool compresses: This can also reduce inflammation and provide temporary relief from the itchiness, says Dr. Zeichner. Grab a frozen bag of peas if you have to. It’s important to stop scratching at the skin, otherwise you may open yourself up to secondary infection.
Prescription topicals: If it gets really bad, “your dermatologist can give you a prescription for a cortisone cream stronger than what is available over the counter,” says Dr. Zeichner.
Skip these remedies: “We don’t recommend treatments such as rubbing alcohol, witch hazel, or apple cider vinegar,” says Dr. Katta, as they can be irritating. Also, there’s a common myth that applying nail polish to a chigger bite will work to “suffocate” the mites, but this doesn’t hold up, as chiggers don’t actually burrow into the skin, says Dr. Katta.
How to prevent chigger bites
The best way to treat a chigger bite? Avoid getting one in the first place with these tips:
Apply insect repellant: Raupp suggests applying a DEET-based repellent on your boots and clothing if you’re heading out to areas with thick greenery (avoid spraying directly onto your skin). If you’re going to be out for a long amount of time, be sure to reapply your repellent ever two to three hours, Raupp says.
Wear protective clothing: “If you are going to be in grassy fields, make sure to wear long pants and sleeves,” says Dr. Zeichner. Wearing permethrin-treated clothing, which also works effectively against ticks, can also be helpful.
Hit the shower ASAP: Once you get back indoors, “you should immediately take a hot shower and use soap to thoroughly wash your body to remove any remaining mites,” says Dr. Zeichner. If you don’t have access to a shower right way, use a towel to brush off your body–this may help dislodge any that have camped out on your skin.
Throw your clothes in the wash: “Take off your clothing immediately after coming indoors. You should wash your clothing in hot, soapy water to kill any mites that may be living in the seams,” says Dr. Zeichner. Hot is important here, as the mites can survive a wash in a cool cycle.
How to get rid of chiggers in your yard
If you feel like there are tons of chiggers hanging out near your home, the best thing you can do is get rid of their habitat. Mow your lawn, trim your bushes, clear out tall weeds and grasses, and generally cut back any brush. It may seem simple, but this deprives the minuscule mites of the moisture and shade they’re drawn to—and also keeps other animals they like to latch onto, like rodents, away from your lawn.
It’s important to do this landscaping each year as the weather starts to warm up, as adult chiggers will burrow into the soil during winter and lay eggs once spring hits, potentially infesting your yard all over again.
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