You feel an incessant urge to scratch. Mindlessly, you pull up your right pant leg to the calf and dig in with your fingernails. Your chocolate lab stares mindlessly at you, with his pink tongue hanging lopsidedly out of his mouth. Suddenly aware that you’re turning a patch of your leg red, which is beginning to look blotchy and develop what appears to be a rash, you stop. Perplexed, you stare at your leg, wondering what’s causing this fervor of finger-nail-digging.
Is it chiggers?
What are chiggers?
Chiggers have a profusion of names, perhaps because of their abundant presence in nearly every biome around the world. Their scientific name is trombiculid mites (not to be confused with Trombidiidae). While the British call them harvest mites, the Americans call them chiggers. I’ve also heard the names harvest bugs, harvest lice, mower’s mites, red bugs, berry bugs, bush-mites, and scrub-itch mites whispered in dark, shadow-filled corners from those wondering what unabating itching woke them at night. (We’ll simply refer to them as chiggers here, as the name trombiculid is rather unpleasant to remember, let alone pronounce.)
I’m going to get technical for just a moment: Chiggers are a type of arthropod in the phylum Arthropoda. Arthropods also include crabs, beetles, and other critters with a hard, outer shell. Within this group, chiggers fall into the class Arachnida, also known as arachnids. Arachnids, as you’re well aware, include spiders, scorpions, and other fear-inducing phobia-inspiring creepy-crawlies. Arachnids have eight legs, most have six to eight eye spots, and no antennae.
What do chiggers look like?
Unless you typically walk through the woods with a microscope, or even a very sharp magnifying glass in hand, you’re unlikely to spot these arachnids. In fact, they’re likely smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. If you do glimpse a rare sighting of these red itch-producing miscreants, it’ll be like watching a tiny red dot quickly move about on the surface of your leg.
Pocket fact: A chigger can trek from a casualty's ankle to their belt buckle in about 15 minutes. Once on your frame, chiggers will wander about for around an hour, looking for a tender, juicy spot to dine.
Because of their diminutive size and near impossibility of sighting, it’s best to understand the types of habitats they live in and to avoid proximity altogether. Though, if you must know, chiggers are reddish-orange and quite hairy.
Where do chiggers live?
Chiggers live wherever there is unmanaged vegetation, which is a great incentive for keeping your grass short and your hedges trimmed. Think damp, moist areas with low-growing shrubs, lush grass, and noxious weeds. Ponder on wet, overgrown grasslands and cow-filled pastures. Imagine forest floors.
In the United States, chiggers are mostly found in the southeast, south and midwest. They are most active from early spring to early autumn, when the ground temperature is between 77 and 86 degrees F. They begin to die around the time that you awake to patchy frost on your fall garden vegetables, at around 42 degrees F.
In early fall and late spring, I often venture to my cabin and research lab in the Pacific Northwest. Fortunately, this is why, until recently, I had never been victimized by chiggers. That is, until I purposed to venture into other parts of the United States, standing barefoot in dank forests, slowly meandering through suspicious leaf litter and stealthily walking through cow pastures, leery of fresh patties. This is where I began to itch. This is what a chigger attack felt like.
Chiggers rarely venture more than a foot off the ground in the wild and tend to stay clumped together in large groups where they had hatched. When you happen upon a chigger, you’ve most likely happened upon their breeding site.
Do chiggers bite?
Chiggers don’t actually bite, but their larvae sure do. They greedily latch onto a suitable host and giddily crawl around until they find an ideal, prize-winning location—one where the skin is thin and they can’t get brushed off easily. (Thin skin is easy to penetrate, which is a must for chiggers, as their mouths and feeding structures are delicate.) They prefer areas of wrinkles or folds, which is typically around the ankles, crotch, groin area, or behind the knees or in the armpits, though they also like to nibble where clothing fits tightly.
A chigger then creates a hole in your skin (with a blade-like mouthpart called a chelicerae) and happily proceeds to inject its saliva (which contains digestive enzymes) to the bite wound. The surrounding skin, around the bite site, then hardens and forms a tube-like "straw," which the chigger uses to suck up the digested tissue.
A chigger may remain intact at this location for several days, feeding until its belly is full. It then drops off, leaving a nice red welt in its place as a reminder of its presence. Chiggers do not suck blood, nor burrow into their host’s skin. Technically speaking, they do not bite (but rather drill or saw with their chelicerae) and they don’t transmit Lyme disease.
How long does a chigger bite last?
The itchiness of a chigger bite is typically the most intense for the first 24-48 hours after a bite. Symptoms should then slowly dissipate and then completely stop after a week or two.
It’s important during this time frame not to give into the itch, which can lead to infection and further extend the pain.
How do I get rid of the pain of chigger bites?
First, take a hot shower to loosen and remove any remaining chiggers. Make sure to apply soap and use a washcloth to create friction against the skin.
After showering, there are several home remedy treatments that can be used, such as colloidal oatmeal, which is a skin protectant that also helps reduce itching and inflammation, calamine lotion, an over-the-counter product that can relieve itching, essential oils that specifically assist with bug bites, and cold presses or ice packs, which will help soothe the bite site. Chigger bites usually get better on their own, so consult your doctor if you find that this is not the case.
How do I prevent chigger bites?
Here are a few quick tips on chigger prevention, as prevention is key.
- Wear tightly woven, but loose, clothing. Tightly woven fabrics minimize the movement of chiggers, whereas loose clothing has proven unattractive. These 1/60 of an inch arachnids prefer well-fitted leggings (and other tight-fitting clothing).
- Tuck your pant legs into your socks to dissuade chiggers from finding entry to your skin.
- Avoid walking in heavy brush and tall weeds, especially where chigger activity is known.
How can Dr. Killigan’s help?
Can one ever be too safe? Though chiggers don’t commonly live in well manicured lawns, it’s important to do all that we can to protect our families, including our pets. Purchase the Insect Buster, fill it with food-grade diatomaceous earth or another non-toxic insect powder, and disperse this around the perimeter of your yard, paying special attention to areas that may offer ideal conditions for chiggers to live in, such as any overgrown areas, those that provide shade and moisture, and where you may have tall grasses, weeds, or briars. Reapply after heavy rains.
Diatomaceous earth is one of the best non-toxic insect powders for ridding your yard (and your home) of unwelcome visitors. It is composed of sharp, microscopic diatoms that are naturally sourced in the earth’s crust and are fatal to insects, though harmless to you or I. These diatoms scratch the shells of and thus cause dehydration to chiggers, causing inevitable death.
Thank you for this great information. I have experienced chiggers while hiking but never knew what was biting me. These guys are tiny, but they can hurt a lot.
I will certainly be wearing tightly woven fabrics when I go on hikes. Anything I can do to keep these nasty buggers at bay! Thanks for the at-home treatments as well. I love DIY solutions!