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Chiggers

What Are Chiggers?

Chiggers (also called harvest mites or red mites) 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 scorpions). 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?

Chiggers have tiny claws that let them attach to people and animals. Once attached, a chigger pierces the skin and injects its saliva (spit). The spit contains digestive juices that dissolve skin cells. The chigger then consumes the dissolved cells. 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.

illustration

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.

Some males who have chigger bites on the penis develop a reaction known as "summer penile syndrome." This can cause swelling of the penis, itching, and painful peeing.

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?

Most of the time, a chigger bite is like a mosquito bite or any other insect bite — annoying but not harmful. 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.
  • Calamine lotion or anti-itch creams can help with the itching.
  • Holding a cool washcloth over the bites can be soothing.

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 a child resist scratching the bites. 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 might have "summer penile syndrome." Doctors might prescribe antihistamines and recommend cool compresses to treat this problem.

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.

Date reviewed: October 2014