Chigger Bites: Cause and Cure

Chigger Bites Cause and Cure

Nobody gets just one chigger bite. You get a whole mess of them, more often than not, and they itch like hell. But chigger bites are preventable and the itching they cause goes away in a few days. Unlike ticks, chiggers do not carry any diseases that can affect humans.  The best way to prevent chiggers bit is to avoid their habitat, wear long pants and tuck them into your socks, and to spray or soak your clothing with Permethrin, an insecticide that’s specifically designed for treating fabrics.

What are chiggers?

Chiggers are tiny insects that feed on insects and their eggs. They’re very small and nearly invisible without a magnifying glass. Adult chiggers are actually harmless to humans; it’s the baby chiggers that bite people. To mature, larval chiggers must eat on animal flesh. This is the only time during their lifecycle when they are parasitic. They’re harmless when they mature

What happens when a larval (baby) chigger bites you?

Chigger bites often occur near hair follicles or pore where the skin is the thinnest and hasn’t been toughened by exposure, like your pubic area, underarms, and near your waistbands. The chigger punctures your skin and injects saliva that includes enzymes to liquify your body’s cells so they can be ingested. Your immune system walls off the area around the bite to protect it from spreading, but the chigger will continue to feed for four days unless it falls off or is removed.

How can you avoid larval chiggers?

Chiggers live in tall grass, in the weeds along river banks, and in tree and shrubbery branches where they can easily latch onto a host that brushes by. The best way to avoid them is to avoid such habitat and resist the temptation to sit or lie in tall grass.

Chigger Bites occur in areas with softer skin that hasn’t been exposed to sunlight or weathering

What does a chigger bite look like?

Chigger bites look like raised red welts or pimples. They usually occur in groups on areas of soft skin along skin folds or pants waistlines that damn chiggers and prevent them from migrating across the surface of your skin. It’s not unusual to experience dozens of chigger bites at once resulting in groups of welts on your skin. Chigger bites will begin to itch between and six hours after you’ve been bitten.

What’s the best way to treat a chigger bite?

If you think you’ve been bitten, scrub the affected area with a brush, soap, and water to remove any chiggers still attached to your skin. They fall off quite easily unlike other insects. Wiping the area with a dry piece of cloth will also have a positive impact if you don’t have easy access to a bath or shower.

Unlike ticks, chiggers don’t carry any diseases that can affect humans. But the bites can itch terribly. Scratching them should be avoided because it will increase the itching and can create a secondary infection. Scratch also keeps the wound open and prevents it from healing. The worst of the itching will subside after a few days and the welts will disappear after a week or two as they heal.

To reduce the itching, apply Benedryl Extra-Strength antihistamine cream or a hydrocortisone ointment like Cortisone 10 Maximum Strength to the site. Calamine Lotion is also effective in reducing the itching. If the itching is still unbearable, contact your doctor for advice.

How can you prevent chigger bites?

The best way to avoid chiggers is to avoid their habitat by staying on paths and trails and avoiding tall grass and riverbank vegetation. If that’s not feasible, apply DEET to your skin, tuck your pants into your socks, and treat your clothing with Sawyer’s Permethrin, an insecticide designed to be used on clothing, that is used by many hikers, backpackers, and the military. See Treating Your Clothes with Permethrin Spray and Permethrin Soak Method Guide for more detailed directions.

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24 comments

  1. My grandmother, raised in Appalachian poverty, would treat our chigger bites with salt and bacon grease. I have to say it was not as effective as her cure for wasp stings: tobacco and spit.

    • Ross, that’s interesting about traditional remedies. A well-chewed wad of chewing tobacco is also a traditional treatment for scorpion and stings. Supposedly, the enzymes from the saliva help break down the proteins in the venom, though I don’t know if that’s been tested scientifically. Regarding chiggers, I’ve never found that topical antihistamine or other creams or lotions do any good. Taking Benadryl in pill form before bedtime, however, can help reduce the itching and promote sleepiness enough to help get you through the night without scratching. Chiggers are another reason I sleep in a tent with bug netting, rather than under a tarp. I even spray the door zipper area with permethrin, in case any bugs try to sneak in while I’m crawling into or out of the tent.

      • I had a case of bad chigger bites all over my back from pitching a tent in dry grass along a stream. I’d never encountered chiggers in NH before. I suspect they’re small enough to get through tent mesh but don’t know that for a fact. Benedryl and some antihistamine ointment my wife gave me made it tolerable until the itching stopped, but the bites took a long time to heal. Never doing that again!

  2. Chiggers can be the bane of existence in Texas. Those things like to bite in spots that are embarrassing to scratch in polite company.

    Fortunately, it’s a little early for them right now as we take the dog for walks. There’s a couple vacant lots near a creek that are fun to explore right now but in a month or so, I wouldn’t set foot on them. I’ve treated with permethrin almost every piece of clothing I own and I spray Off on my shoes and pant legs before I walk anywhere in grass. I haven’t had too many bad encounters the last few years.

  3. As a kid in South Louisiana (note the capitalized S!), we used sulfur powder dusted onto our ankles and socks to repel chiggers. The best “treatment” I’ve discovered once I have chigger bites is to just NOT scratch for a day or two. For me, that is sufficient, though it does test one’s willpower.

    • Walter Underwood

      I grew up in Baton Rouge. I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned Chigarid as a treatment. It was the standard back in the 1960s and seemed to work.

      https://www.chigarid.com/

      One thing that reduced chigger bites was changing underwear and socks before getting in my sleeping bag. They liked to get under the clothing.

  4. A friend of mine sat on a log and got chiggers on his butt while hiking the Appalachian Trail. I think we were in Virginia at the time. It was a red blotch about the size of a pancake. The poor guy was suffering. He did some chores for an old lady for a meal and he told her he was considering quitting the trail because it itched so bad. She took a look at it, declared it was chiggers, and painted his butt with nail polish. He said it was nearly instant relief. Getting his butt painted with nail polish by an old lady made a funny campfire story. After seeing that, I was careful where I sat.

  5. I grew up using the clear nail polish treatment. Getting chigger bit was a sure thing trying to get to all my favorite fishing holes, which included scrambling through the tall grass and weeds in Va Beach. Nail polish stopped the itch and suffocated the pests which had bored into one’s skin. I have not had a single chigger bite on 1500 miles of the AT so far, thanks to Permethrin.

  6. Living in Georgia, we deal with chiggers every year. Best to just avoid the little arachnids but some of the home remedies mentioned in other comments are things I’ve seen and/or done, including the sulfur and the nail polish (preferably clear polish, not some garish color). It takes a true act of willpower not to scratch a chigger bite, and I think that’s the real virtue of the nail polish. It’ll force you not to scratch.

  7. Probably worth pointing out that chiggers are only a problem east of the Rockies and are less of an issue in the Northern border states than they are in the central, eastern and southern states. They are apparently a year round nuisance in the southern most states like Florida and Texas. I have no personal experience since I’m on the West Coast. Ticks and mosquitoes are the main bug problems here although bees, wasps and horseflies can also be a nuisance.

  8. I was recently thinking of getting some clothes treated with Permethrin. Then I read Silent Spring as a tribute to Earth Day and that changed my mind.

  9. Shoal Pond Trail, between Shoal Pond and Ethan Pond Trail was very overgrown last year. We pushed through to go south and camp, and pushed through going north in the morning, but ended up with many chigger bites. :-( They could have been from camping up off the trail at Shoal Pond, but that was open area.. I blame the brush we pushed through.

  10. As a veteran (N.Texas and E. Central Oklahoma) of many chigger attacks, I second the dusting of shoes, socks and lower pants with sulfur dust as a deterrent. You smell like a used match after a while, but you’re still ahead in the game.
    If you still get bit somehow, the best remedy I’ve found, is Original, amber colored, Listerine on a cotton ball, dabbed on the bites a few times a day. Less itch, shorter duration. If you don’t like getting poison oak/ivy – you’ll hate chiggers.

    • After having them twice in 3 yrs I learned if I am in any type grasses hiking in lower elevations that I change my clothes before I get in the car. I take a towel to attempt to remove any that might still be hanging on. I shake my clothes out & put them in a plastic bag in the trunk. I put on completely clean clothes but as soon as I get home I take a cold shower and scrub in the event of poison ivy and then a hot shower and scrub again to remove any possible remaining chiggers. I immediately wash my clothes. Cold water then hot for the same reasons. It really becomes hardly worth hiking in summer at lower elevations.

  11. CAPT Gary Andres USN ret

    I had the worst case of chigger bites when I camped riverside one time along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico (near Leesburg State Park, July 4th weekend, 1981., if memory serves). A Mexican chili farmer, told me to make a “rub” of beer and caliche (alkali rich soil), famed along the lower Rio Grande River valley).. Hell‘S bells…..I itched so badly, I would have used gasoline and a match to stop that Godless itching! But there we were, four New Mexico State University students, 3 Viet Nam veterans, and an ROTC Officer candidate, standing half naked in the river in sight of numerous observers laughing to beat the band…..while we mixed warm Coors and Olympia beer with flood plain soil…. all over our “nether regions“. I’m 65 now……I swear it worked…..long enough for us to get back to Las Cruces and Cooling salt baths. I never again put myself in a situation to have chiggers infest any part of my body!

  12. Bill in Roswell GA

    Phillip, you mentioned using DEET in the article on chiggers. Does DEET work better than Picaridin for chiggers? Picaridin has been great for me regarding ticks and mosquitoes. I hike plenty of chigger country but wear permethrin treated clothes or well sprayed legs/socks with picaridin. But if DEET is better for chiggers, there are times I would go that route.

  13. First of all, I feel the need to point out that chiggers are mites, not insects. I am very susceptible to chigger bites. I’ve had to be put on prednisone for bad chigger bites a couple of times in the past. I now happen to live in an area where chiggers are fairly common. I’ve found that the best way to prevent chiggers from biting me, is to treat my shoes/boots with permethrin, as well as wearing over the calf, permethrin treated socks. This works wonders for preventing most tick bites as well. In serious tick habitats, I wear permethrin treated pants and tick gaiters. I’ve read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring several times, but I don’t believe that my permethrin treated boots and clothing are an environmental issue or a health risk to me. IMHO, any risk of contact with permethrin is far less a health risk than acquiring a tick borne disease.

  14. Chiggers… a source of many wives tales.

    First, there are a couple of home remedies that are total BS: 1) spray them with hair spray and 2) use nail polish to “smother” them. Total BS.

    Ok, with that out of the way… here’s the thing about chiggers, they are much easier to avoid than to treat. Any decent insect repellent, of any sort, is highly effective. It might not stop you from getting any bites, but you might have five bites instead of, say 100 bites… something that can happen.

    Next, if you think you’ve been exposed, then taking a good shower, using soap and scrubbing with a washcloth, is highly effective if done the same day.

    I have rarely had a bite with either of the precautions above, never when using both.

    If on a trail, in the midst of a backpacking trip, and in suspected chigger area, I would certainly have all my clothes treated, shoes (perhaps tent too, I hadn’t thought of that) – and then would also use a bit of insect repellent. Especially on legs and bare skin on arms. Again, … even a small bit will avoid a major problem. If I could get near a creek and scrub with a washcloth, I would, and if not, I’d use a anti-bacterial wipe all over prior to bedtime.

    By the way, … going #2 is a particularly bad way to get chiggers in bad places. You won’t make that mistake more than once.

    Ok… if you do happen to get them, I have the solution. Just wait about 3 weeks, and they’ll be gone!

    In all seriousness – first – don’t fall for the nonsense about nail polish, etc.
    Next, the above local treatments and Benedryl all make sense. Try to get your mind off them – it’s a misery.

    They shouldn’t be called “chiggers” but should have been called “hellfire.”

  15. Interesting collection of chigger remedies. I treat socks, shoes, pants (long and short),and bottom of tent area with Permethrin. Buy it by the quart and make your own spray. But once in a while, when not on a hiking trip but just doing work in nearby piles of leaves or taller grass, I will get some chigger bites. They have always been around the ankles. What has worked each time for me was a paste of baking soda rubbed on and left there. Stops the itching.
    Back to Permethrin: My wife and I were camped at Benchmark on the CDT after finishing a 350 mile stretch when a day later a group of three hikers pulled in after doing the exact same 350 mile section of CDT. They slept under tarps and complained bitterly of dealing with “hundreds” of ticks. We, having done the pre-trip Permethrin spraying, had dealt with only 6 ticks between us, none biting us .
    In response to “Bill in RoswellGA”, We have switched entirely from Deet to Picaridin (in the 20% solution). FWIW.

  16. You don’t need to go hiking to acquire chiggers. A walk in a city park or your back yard fertilized lawn will do as well. Chiggers are the larval form of red mites, common lawn pests.

  17. the best thing I have used is bleach. oh yes it hurts like hell for a few minutes but the bleach kills the larvae on contact. no more itch. I have used this several times and it always works

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