Adult chigger mite.
Adult chigger mite. Chiggers are barely visible to the naked eye (their length is less than 1/150th of an inch).Source: MedicineNet

Things to know about chiggers

  • Chiggers are the larval (juvenile) form of a type of mite (Trombiculidae).
  • Chiggers do not burrow into and remain inside the skin, contrary to popular belief.
  • Chiggers inject digestive enzymes into the skin and feed upon the decomposed tissue.
  • Pronounced itching is the main symptom of chigger bites.
  • Bites may appear as blisters or as flat or raised red areas.
  • Treatment involves supportive measures to control itching.

What do chiggers look like (pictures)? Can you see them?

Chiggers are barely visible to the naked eye (their length is less than 1/150th of an inch). A magnifying glass may be needed to see them. They are red in color and maybe best appreciated when clustered in groups on the skin. The juvenile forms have six legs, although the (harmless) adult mites have eight legs.

How to Tell if You Have Chiggers or Bed Bugs

If your itchy bites are keeping you up at night, you may be trying to figure out what’s biting you. While their bites may look similar, there are key differences between chiggers and bed bugs.

Chiggers

Chiggers are found in clusters and feed on your body for several hours or days until you wash or scratch them off. You may feel them on your skin but cannot see them due to their microscopic size.

Bed bugs

Bed bugs tend to live near where you sleep. Look for the following signs in your bed sheets or mattresses:

  • Little spots of blood
  • Rusty-looking stains (crushed bugs)
  • Black dots
  • Live bugs around the seams or tags
Table: Chiggers vs. bed bugs
ChiggersBed bugs
Appearance
  • Tiny, red
  • 0.1-16 mm
  • Mostly look like spiders
  • Small, flat, reddish-brown
  • 4-5 mm
  • Egg-shaped
Feeding habitsFeed on humans and animalsFeed on humans, other mammals, and birds at least once every 14 days
Living conditionsActive when the ground temperature is between 77-86 degrees FSurvive and remain active at temperatures as low as 45 degrees F
Hiding places
  • Outdoors
  • Grassy fields
  • Lakes and streams
  • Forests
  • Beds 
  • Crevices in chairs, couches, curtains, rugs, dressers 
  • Cracks of walls and floors
BitesItchy, red bumps that can look like pimples, blisters, or small hivesItchy, red bumps similar to mosquito bites or flea bites

A woman walks barefoot through the grass.
Chiggers insert their feeding structures into the skin and inject enzymes that cause the destruction of host tissue.Source: Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be (Wikipedia)

How do chiggers burrow under the skin?

Chigger mites infest human skin via areas of contact with vegetation, such as pant cuffs or shirt sleeves and collars. They migrate on the skin in search of an optimal feeding area. A common myth about chiggers is that they burrow into and remain inside the skin. This is not true. Chiggers insert their feeding structures into the skin and inject enzymes that cause the destruction of host tissue. Hardening of the surrounding skin results in the formation of a feeding tube called a stylostome. Chigger larvae then feed upon the destroyed tissue. If they are not disturbed (which is rarely the case because they cause substantial itching) they may feed through the stylostome for a few days.

The chigger's mouth and feeding structures are delicate and are best able to penetrate the skin at areas of wrinkles, folds, or other areas of skin that are thin. Most bites occur around the ankles, the crotch, and groin areas, behind the knees, and in the armpits. Barriers to migration on the skin such as belts may be one reason that chigger bites also commonly occur at the waist or in other areas where their migration is prevented by compression from clothing. The location of chigger bites contrasts with that of mosquito bites, which are usually in exposed areas of skin where mosquitoes can land.

Itchy red welts from chigger bites on a man's leg.
There are five symptoms of chigger bites include itching and pustule or blister.Source: iStockphoto

What are the signs and symptoms of chigger bites?

A chigger bite itself is not noticeable. After the chigger has begun to inject digestive enzymes into the skin (usually after about 1-3 hours), symptoms and signs typically begin.

  1. Pronounced itching is the most common symptom.
  2. The area of the bite may be reddened, flat, or raised; sometimes it resembles a pustule or blister.
  3. The itch is due to the presence of the stylostome and usually is most intense within 1-2 days after the bite.
  4. The itching persists for several days, and complete resolution of the skin lesions can take up to two weeks.
  5. If multiple bites are present, the condition may be mistaken for eczema or allergic contact dermatitis. History of outdoor activity can suggest that chigger bites are the cause of itching and characteristic skin changes.
A bottle of Calamine lotion.
Home remedies to help relieve the itching associated with chigger bites may help some people include taking a cool shower, cool bath, colloidal oatmeal, and OTC medications.Source: Flickr

What home remedies and OTC medications ease itching and pain from chigger bites?

Many home remedies for chigger bites are based upon the incorrect belief that chiggers burrow into and remain in the skin. Nail polish, alcohol, and bleach have been applied to the bites to attempt to get rid of the chiggers by "suffocating" or killing the chiggers. However, because the chiggers are not present in the skin, these methods are not effective. Home remedies to help relieve the itching associated with chigger bites may help some people. These can include

  • Taking a cool shower or applying cool compresses
  • Sitting in a cool bath
  • Using bath products that contain colloidal oatmeal
  • Using certain over-the-counter (OTC) medications

OTC medicine for chigger bites

Treatment for chigger bites is directed toward relieving itching and inflammation.

Chigger bites themselves do not produce any long-term complications. However, because of the intense itching, prolonged scratching may lead to skin wounds that may become infected by bacteria. Chiggers in North America are not known to carry any diseases, unlike some other arthropods.

SLIDESHOW

Bad Bugs: Identify Insects and Bug Bites See Slideshow
A person washing glegs with soap, washing clothes, and an array of insect repellent lotions and bug sprays.
A person washing glegs with soap, washing clothes, and an array of insect repellent lotions and bug sprays can prevent chigger bites.Source: iStockphoto

How can you prevent from getting chigger bites?

  • Washing with soap and water after outdoor activity may remove any chiggers that may be migrating on the skin and prevent their bites. Likewise, washing clothing that was worn outdoors in hot water will kill any chiggers remaining on the clothing.
  • Attention to the outdoor temperature can help with the prevention of chigger bites. Chiggers do not bite at colder temperatures (below 60 F or 15.5 C). Chiggers also are not found in areas hotter than 99 F or 37.2 C, so hot rocky areas on sunny days can provide chigger-free seats.
  • As with mosquito bites, proper outdoor clothing can help prevent chigger bites. Long pants and long-sleeved shirts, as well as thick socks and high shoes or boots, can help prevent infestation. The pants' legs should be tucked into shoes or boots if possible.
  • All mosquito repellents (such as DEET), applied to skin and clothing, are effective at repelling chiggers.

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Medically Reviewed on 4/1/2022
References
Bruns, BD, DO. "Insect Bites." Medscape. Updated: May 16, 2017.