AWinter unleashes its chills on the outside world, flowers bloom, pollen invades your nostrils and unfortunately insects come out to play too. Insect bites are among the biggest downsides of the warmer months. There are also so many to keep an eye on: mosquitoes and ticks, spiders and fire ants and more.
A nuisance species that is less well known but no less nuisance is the chigger, a species of mite in the arachnid family. (Yes, that means they are related to spiders).
What are Chigger Bites?
Chiggers are actually only a problem for humans in the larval stage Daniel Joseph Edwards, MS, an aquatic ecologist and entomologist at Louisiana Tech University. When they hatch from their eggs in wooded or grassy areas, they are hungry and want to feed on the skin tissues of other species. So when you come hiking in your cute Outdoor Voices shorts, your exposed shins look mighty tasty.
The trouble is, you might have no idea you’re eating lunch. Chiggers are super small and barely visible to the human eye — if at all, says Edwards, who regularly encounters chiggers during his field research. “A common misconception is that they burrow into the skin,” says Edwards. “Instead, in humans, they attach themselves to the hair root or skin pores, inject saliva into the skin (but do not penetrate the skin) and then suck up the dissolved skin tissue (not blood),” he explains. This is different from ticks and mosquitoes, which actually suck blood, or spiders and wasps, which sting or bite in self-defense.
You won’t usually see signs of chiggers until after they’ve eaten away at your skin tissue, settled, and gone their funny arachnid way. But they’re not polite guests: After eating, chiggers usually leave a series of red, itchy bumps or small welts where your skin reacts to their saliva.
So where on your body do you need to be most careful? “They tend to operate anywhere the skin is softer or thinner, like the back of the knee,” says Edwards. “Often they go where your clothes are tight. So when you wear pants, they might go up to your underwear or around your socks. They like to find those tight spots just because they feel a little bit safer.”
That might sound like a big hiking buzzkill. But Edwards offers good news: “Chiggers in North America [are] not actually a carrier of disease, which is really important compared to things like ticks. It’s more of a nuisance bug,” he says.
How to treat chigger bites
So what can you do if you get chigger bites after a day in the great outdoors? “Chigger bites can be quite uncomfortable and itchy, but there are several steps you can take to relieve symptoms and promote healing,” says Noor Hanif Said, MBBS, MRCP, FAMS, senior dermatologist and medical director of Renaissance Derm. Here are the key steps he recommends:
1. Clean the affected area and keep it dry
“As soon as you notice chigger bites, gently wash the area with soap and cold water to remove any remaining chigger bites and reduce the risk of infection,” says Dr. Hanif. The sooner you do this, the more you can prevent further itchy welts, says Edwards. And if you covered any of the bites with bandages, change those bandages frequently to keep them clean, adds Dr. Add Hanif.
2. Apply a cold compress
If the welts are itchy and swelling, Dr. Covering with a cold compress for 10 to 15 minutes (as often as needed throughout the day) will help relieve discomfort.
3. Use over-the-counter treatments
Over-the-counter creams or ointments for itchiness with ingredients like hydrocortisone or calamine lotion “may help relieve itching and reduce inflammation,” says Dr. Hanif.
But if creams and lotions aren’t enough, you can also try taking an oral antihistamine like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or loratadine (Claritin), he adds. This helps control the allergic reaction (read: the itch).
4. Be careful to avoid scratches
“Chigger bites usually heal within a week or two if there are no complications,” says Dr. Hanif. However, this can be delayed by scratching, although it is very difficult to resist. “Scratchy chigger bites can cause skin tears, increasing the risk of infection and prolonging the healing process,” he explains. If you really can’t stop, at least keep your fingernails short to minimize the damage.
Of course, Dr. Hanif added that you should make an appointment with a dermatologist or your GP if the bites “become infected or become excessively painful, or you develop a fever or other signs of a more serious reaction.” by a professional.
How to prevent chigger bites
If you want to prevent this itchy ordeal altogether, Edwards recommends dressing eco-friendly: Wearing closed-toe shoes with socks and tucking your pants in your socks can help you avoid both chiggers and ticks when hiking or in the walking around in tall grass, he says.
Unfortunately, insect repellents are unlikely to be particularly effective. “You can apply deet, permethrin, and other common insecticides,” says Edwards. “It’s not something I recommend to chiggers because I find it doesn’t work very well.”
A better bet? Avoid high risk areas. “For example, don’t walk through thick foliage, walk in the middle of the path,” says Edwards. And when you get home, take a shower as soon as possible. “Scrub your legs and anywhere you wear tight-fitting clothing (in general). [the] lower half of the body).” This will get rid of any unwanted guests who may have booked a ride you didn’t mean to offer.
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