Chiggers (also called harvest mites or red bugs) are tiny red, biting mites. Their bites aren't painful, but do cause intense itching.
Chiggers are members of the arachnid family (the same family that includes spiders and ticks). They are smaller than a period at the end of a sentence. Most can only be seen with a magnifying glass.
Chiggers are found all over the outdoors, including in grassy fields, along lakes and streams, and in forests. It's the baby chiggers that bite people and animals.
How Do Chigger Bites Happen?
After hatching, baby chiggers wait on plants for people or animals to pass by. When they do, the chigger attaches to them using tiny claws. Once attached, it pierces their skin and injects its saliva (spit). The spit contains digestive juices that dissolve skin cells. The chigger then eats the dissolved cells, which provide the protein it needs to grow into an adult. After a couple of days the chigger falls off, leaving a red bump on the skin.
What Are the Signs of Chigger Bites?
Chigger bites are itchy red bumps that can look like pimples, blisters, or small hives. They are usually found around the waist, ankles, or in warm skin folds. They get bigger and itchier over several days, and often appear in groups.
Chigger bites start to itch within hours of the chigger attaching to the skin. The itch stops after a few days, and the red bumps heal over 1–2 weeks.
If chigger bites happen on the penis, they can cause swelling, itching, and painful peeing. This is known as "summer penile syndrome."
How Are Chigger Bites Diagnosed?
Doctors can diagnose chigger bites by looking at them and asking about a person's recent outdoor activities.
How Are Chigger Bites Treated?
Unlike mosquitoes and ticks, chiggers don't carry disease. So they are not harmful, only annoying. You can usually treat chigger bites at home:
Scrub chigger bites well with soap and water to help remove any chiggers that are still attached to the skin.
Holding a cool washcloth over the bites can be soothing.
Calamine lotion or anti-itch creams can help with the itching.
Antihistamines (allergy medicine) taken by mouth can sometimes help with itching, especially if your child has trouble sleeping at night.
Discourage kids from scratching at the bites because this can lead to:
impetigo, a bacterial infection of the skin, with pus and crusts around the bites
a larger area of increasing redness, swelling, pain, and warmth, called cellulitis
Keeping fingernails short can help prevent skin damage from scratching. Antibiotics may be needed if a skin infection does happen.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Call your doctor's office if:
Over-the-counter creams or lotions don't help the itching.
A bite looks infected (watch for warmth, redness, swelling, tenderness, or pus).
Your son has symptoms of "summer penile syndrome."
Can Chigger Bites Be Prevented?
To help prevent chigger bites when enjoying the great outdoors:
Apply an insect repellent with 10%–30% DEET.
Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants tucked into shoes, especially during hiking. This also can help protect kids from other biting critters like ticks and mosquitoes.
Take a hot shower after you get back inside, and wash your clothes in hot water. Clothes also can be treated with a specific insecticide to help prevent bites.
Chigger bites aren't contagious, so kids can't catch them from someone or give them to somebody else. They can still play sports and do all normal activities unless the itching makes them too uncomfortable.