Chiggers: Little Bugs with a Big Bite
Tiny But Powerful
Chiggers are tiny members of the arachnid family. Although they are extremely small in size, their bites pack a powerful punch. They’re so tiny that you probably won’t notice when they jump from that tall blade of grass onto your skin. You won’t feel it as they hitch a ride right into your home. When you eventually do feel them, however, they can make you itch like you’ve never itched before.
Chigger Habitat and Human Connection
Chiggers live in tall weeds and grass, in berry patches, and in wooded areas. They may be in your backyard, by the lake, and clustered along your favorite hiking trail. They are most active on summer and fall afternoons, when temperatures are warm and inviting. They can quickly attach to your skin if you walk by and brush up against vegetation where they live. When the temperature falls below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, chiggers become inactive. They die off when the temperature falls below 42 degrees Fahrenheit.
What Chiggers Look Like
Chiggers are very tiny and it generally takes a magnifying glass to see them. Adults are about 1/60 of an inch and have eight legs. The larvae are red, wingless, six-legged creatures that measure less than 1/150 of an inch. Because of their red color, you might be able to spot the larvae when they cluster together. After they feast on human skin cells, they turn a yellowish color.
How Chiggers Bite
Only the larvae bite humans. They tend to choose warm, moist areas of the body. Chiggers have claws that help them grab onto skin. The chigger then attaches its mouth to the skin and injects saliva. The saliva contains an enzyme that breaks skin cells down to liquid form. Your body responds by hardening skin cells around the saliva, creating a tube (stylostome) through which the chigger sucks the dissolved skin cells. Chiggers can stay attached and feeding for several days before falling off.
What Chigger Bites Look Like
When the chigger falls off, you are left with reddish bumps. You may notice a bright red dot in the center—this is a remnant of the tube your skin formed in response to the chigger’s saliva. The bumps may look like welts, blisters, pimples, or hives. Bites generally appear in groups and get larger for several days to a week. While many insects bite exposed skin that’s easy to get to, chiggers like to bite in folds of skin as well as places where clothing fits tightly on the skin. Most chigger bites occur around the ankles, waist, armpits, crotch, or behind the knees.
Chigger Bite Symptoms
You won’t feel it when the chigger latches on, and you probably won’t feel a thing when it bites. However, most people report symptoms within hours of the bite. The most problematic symptom of chigger bites is the intense itching and desire to scratch. Often, the bites appear in clusters and can form a rash. Chigger bites on the penis can cause severe itching, swelling, and painful urination.
How to Treat Chigger Bites
It can take anywhere from one to three weeks for chigger bites to heal. In the meantime, try to avoid scratching, as this can cause infection. You may use over-the-counter anti-itch medications like hydrocortisone or calamine lotion. You can also apply ice to the bites to relieve itch. Avoid very hot baths and showers. If you become infected or symptoms don’t improve, see your doctor. It is a common misperception that chiggers burrow under the skin. They do not, so there is no need to try to remove them.
Health Risks of Chigger Bites
Chigger bites are uncomfortable, itchy, annoying, and can make it difficult to sleep. In most cases, chigger bites don’t cause any harm to your health. Chiggers feed on skin cells, but not on blood. They do not carry or transmit disease. However, chigger bites can become infected from too much scratching. Notify your doctor if you have swelling, fever, or other signs of infection.
How to Avoid Chigger Bites
Summer and fall are prime time for chigger bites. When in wooded areas that may be chigger-infested, try not to brush up against vegetation. When hiking, walk in the center of trails, rather than along the sides. Wear long sleeves and long pants that can be tucked into your socks or shoes. Use insect or tick repellent, especially around the tops of your shoes, shirt neck, cuffs, and waistband. Shower as soon as you go indoors. Wash your clothes in hot water.
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