How to Know When It’s a Chigger Bite

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.

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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.

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.

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)

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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.

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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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