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.
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.
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.
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.
How to treat chigger bites
It can take anywhere from one to three weeks for chigger bites to heal. If you suspect you have chigger bites, immediately wash with soap and water. This will get rid of any remaining chiggers on your body. Then apply an antiseptic to any welts.
In the meantime, try to avoid scratching, as this can cause infection. You may use over-the-counter anti-itch medications like hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion. You can also apply ice to the bites to relieve the itch.
Avoid very hot baths and showers. If you become infected or symptoms don’t improve, see your doctor. It’s a common misperception that chiggers burrow under the skin. They don’t, so there is no need to try to remove them.
Spring, summer, and fall are prime time for chigger bites. When you’re in wooded areas that may be chigger-infested, try not to brush up against vegetation. When hiking, walk in the center of trails, rather than along the sides.
Wear long sleeves and long pants that can be tucked into your socks or shoes. Use insect or tick repellent, especially around the tops of your shoes, shirt neck, cuffs, and waistband. Shower as soon as you go indoors. Wash your clothes in hot water.
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Macmillan, A. (2022, January 16). How to Prevent and Treat Chigger Bites. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/prevent-treat-chigger-bites
Pietrangelo, A. (2019, March 29). Chiggers: Little Bugs with a Big Bite. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/chigger-bites