As winter releases its chilly grasp on the outside world, flowers bloom, pollen finds its way into your nose, and, unfortunately, bugs come out to play. Bug bites are some of the biggest downsides of the warmer months. There are so many to keep track of, too: mosquitoes and ticks, spiders and fire ants, and more.
One pesky species that’s lesser known but no less annoying are chiggers, a mite species within the arachnid family. (Yes, that means they’re related to spiders).
What are chigger bites?
Chiggers are really only a concern to humans in their larval state, according to Daniel Joseph Edwards, MS, an aquatic ecologist and entomologist at Louisiana Tech University. When they hatch from their eggs in woodsy or grassy areas, they are hungry and want to feed on other species’ skin tissues. So when you come hiking along in your cute Outdoor Voices shorts, your exposed shins look mighty scrumptious.
The problem is, you may have no idea you are 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,” Edwards says. “Instead they attach to humans at the base of hairs or at skin pores and inject saliva into the skin (but not piercing the skin) and then suck up the dissolved skin tissue (not blood),” he explains. This is different from ticks and mosquitoes, which genuinely suck your blood, or spider and wasps that sting or bite in self-defense.
You typically won’t see evidence of chiggers until after they’ve been feeding off your skin tissue, dropped off, and gone along their merry-arachnid way. But they are not polite guests: After dining, chiggers typically leave behind 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 go for anywhere that has softer or thinner skin, like behind the knee,” says Edwards. “A lot of times, they go for where your clothing is tight, so if you’re wearing pants, they might go to your underwear line or around your socks. They like finding those like tight spots just because they feel a little bit more secure.”
This might sound like a major hiking buzzkill. But Edwards does offer some good news: “Chiggers in North America [are] not actually a vector of any diseases, which is really important compared to things like ticks. This is more just a nuisance pest,” he says.
How to treat chigger bites
So, if you’ve gotten chigger bites after a day spent in the great outdoors, what can you do? “Chigger bites can be quite uncomfortable and itchy, but there are several steps you can take to alleviate the symptoms and promote healing,” says Noor Hanif Said, MBBS, MRCP, FAMS, senior dermatologist and medical director of Renaissance Derm. Here are the most important steps he recommends taking:
1. Clean the affected area and keep it dry
“As soon as you notice chigger bites, wash the area gently with soap and cool water to remove any remaining chiggers and reduce the risk of infection,” says Dr. Hanif. The sooner you do this, the more you can prevent any further itchy welts, says Edwards. And if you’ve covered any of the bites with bandages, change those bandages often to keep them clean, adds Dr. Hanif.
2. Apply a cold compress
If the welts are itchy and swollen, Dr. Hanif says covering them with a cold compress for 10 to 15 minutes (as often as you need to throughout the day) can help ease that discomfort.
3. Use over-the-counter treatments
Over-the-counter anti-itch creams or ointments with ingredients like hydrocortisone or calamine lotion “can help soothe the itchiness and reduce inflammation,” Dr. Hanif says.
But if creams and lotions aren’t doing the trick, you can also try taking an oral antihistamine like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or loratadine (Claritin), he adds. This will help control the allergic reaction (read: the itching).
4. Avoid scratching at all costs
“Chigger bites typically heal within one to two weeks if there are no complications,” says Dr. Hanif. However, this can be delayed by scratching, even though it’s super hard to resist. “Scratching chigger bites can cause the skin to break, increasing the risk of infection and prolonging the healing process,” he explains. If you really can’t get yourself to stop, at least keep your fingernails short to minimize the damage.
Of course, Dr. Hanif adds that if the bites do “become infected or excessively painful, or if you develop a fever or other signs of a more severe reaction,” book an appointment with a dermatologist or your primary care provider to have them looked at by a professional.
How to prevent chigger bites
If you want to prevent this itchy ordeal altogether, Edwards recommends dressing for your environment: Wearing closed-toe shoes with socks and tucking your pants into your socks can help you avoid both chiggers and ticks if you’re hiking or traipsing around in tall grass, he says.
Unfortunately, insect repellents are unlikely to be super effective. “You can apply Deet, permethrin, and other common insecticides,” Edwards says. “It isn’t something I recommend for chiggers because I don’t find it works very well.”
A better bet? Avoid areas of high risk. “For example, don’t go through dense foliage—walk in the middle of the trail,” says Edwards. And when you get home, shower ASAP. “Scrub your legs and around anywhere you had tight-fitting clothes (generally [the] lower half of the body).” That way you’ll get rid of any unwanted guests that may have hitched a ride you didn’t mean to offer.