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Chiggers are a family of mites known as Trombiculidae and are closely related to spiders. (1) They are found all over the world and are known by various names, such as red bugs, berry bugs, and harvest mites.
Chiggers usually reside within vegetation such as tall grass, weeds, and plants close to water bodies. Their tiny larvae have strong claws and can easily latch on to unsuspecting passersby. The larvae are barely visible (2) and may stay attached to your skin for several days at a time if unnoticed.
Chigger larvae prefer warm or damp skin to bite. Hence, bites tend to occur under tight clothing (3) or in skin folds such as the armpits due to the presence of excess sweat.
Apart from being itchy, chigger bites are usually harmless and do not transmit infections.
How Do Chiggers Bite?
Chiggers go through a larval stage before turning into adults. Adult chiggers feed on vegetation and do not cause skin infestation. Chigger larvae, on the other hand, are parasitic and feed on the host animal’s skin cells. (4)
Unlike mosquitos and ticks, chiggers do not drink blood. They secrete a digestive enzyme into the skin, which dissolves the epidermal cells. The larvae then feed on these liquefied cells.
They detach and fall off after 2–4 days, leaving a red and itchy bump on the spot.
Symptoms Associated With Chigger Bites
Chigger bites can have varying symptoms, which include:
- Extreme itching (3)
- Rash and inflammation
- Red bumps that resemble pimples
- A rash that may occur due to sun exposure. Chigger bites are often identified by hive-like rashes that occur near the leg band of your underwear.
Symptoms tend to emerge an hour or two after being bitten, and the resulting skin irritation may last for a couple of days.
Treatment for Chigger Bites
Chigger bites can cause severe itching and skin irritation. Treatment revolves around reducing these symptoms and getting rid of any remaining mites on your skin.
- Calamine lotion is a zinc-based cream (5) that helps soothe the itching and irritation associated with chigger bites. (6) Apply the lotion over your rash using a cotton ball/pad at least twice a day for quick relief.
- Hydrocortisone creams are an effective topical treatment for many skin issues such as rashes, insect bites, and allergies. This steroid helps curb the underlying skin inflammation to relieve the redness, itching, and skin irritation caused by chigger bites. (7)
- Antihistamines have widespread use in dermatology in resolving skin allergies. Oral antihistamines can be used to reduce the itching and irritation.
- Oral antibiotics may also be prescribed to treat secondary bacterial infection.
Diagnosing Chigger Bites
Doctors usually diagnose chigger infestations by examining your rash and inquiring about places you have recently visited.
At times, your doctor may try to confirm the diagnosis by collecting mite samples from your skin. An efficient way to do this is by attaching a piece of tape to your skin and ripping it off, which may help remove any mites present on your skin. This tape is then examined under a light microscope.
Complications Associated With Chigger Bites
Chigger bites usually do not cause any serious problems. However, at times, complications can occur.
- Scratching an itch too much can lead to infections such as impetigo (a bacterial infection that causes pus secretion and crusty rash) and cellulitis (an infection that causes redness, inflammation, and pain.) (8)(9)
- Chigger bites on the groin area can lead to a condition known as “summer penile syndrome” in men. The condition may cause swelling, irritation, and difficulty in urinating for a few days. (10)
When to See a Doctor
See your doctor if:
- Your pain or irritation does not seem to resolve after using over-the-counter creams.
- You feel feverish.
- You have nausea or vomiting.
- Your bite seems to be infected (symptoms of infections include pus, swelling, and redness).
Chigger bites may be a nuisance, but they are mostly harmless. Hence, treatment is usually centered on controlling the skin irritation caused by the bites.
However, some people may have severe hypersensitivity reactions to chigger bites. Contact your doctor immediately if your rash does not seem to resolve after a few days of over-the-counter treatment.