Chigger Bites: Should I Worry? And How Should I Treat Them?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on October 12, 2023
7 min read

Chiggers are bugs so small that you need a magnifying glass to spot them. Scientists call these creatures "trombiculid mites" because they're from a family of mites called Neotrombicula autumnalis. But they have a bunch of nicknames. In North America, they're usually called chiggers. In Britain, they're known as harvest mites. They can also be called berry bugs, bush-mites, red bugs, or scrub-itch mites. 

Chiggers actually aren't insects. They're "arachnids," in the same family as spiders and ticks. And while chiggers aren't a huge threat to your health, their bites can leave you with a strong urge to scratch.

Adult chiggers don't bite. It's the babies, called larvae, that you have to watch out for. 

What do chiggers look like?

If you're a fan of things that creep and crawl,  you may find chiggers to be really cool. If not, a close-up picture of a chigger may remind you of something out of a horror movie. 

Chiggers are no more than 0.3 millimeters long, but zoom in and you'll see that they're hairy and red. (And turn yellow once they're full.) Once chiggers become adults, they have eight legs, but the young ones that bite you only have six. And while chiggers do have mouth parts that can pierce your skin, these pinchers are short and not very strong. That's why chiggers bite soft parts of your skin that fold or wrinkle.

Where do chiggers live?

You can travel across the globe, but you can't escape these pests. Chiggers live in every country. Their favorite spots are moist, grassy areas like fields, forests, and even your lawn. You can also find them near lakes and streams.

After they hatch from eggs, baby chiggers don't fly very far on their own. They tend to stay clumped together in large groups on leaves and grass, usually less than a foot off the ground, and attach to animals or people as they pass by.

In the U.S., chigger bites are most common in the late spring, summer, and early fall. The bugs are active when the ground temperature is between 77 and 86 F, and they can't survive once it gets colder than 42 F.

Once chiggers latch onto your pants or shirt, they crawl around until they find a patch of skin. After they make tiny holes in your skin, they inject saliva (spit) that turns some of your cells into mush.

Why do they do it? To a chigger, those now-liquid cells are food. Once they're attached to your skin, a chigger may stay there for several days while they feast.

Do chiggers burrow under your skin? You've probably heard this before, but it's just not true. Chiggers have weak mouth muscles. They can latch onto you but can't go deeper than that. This myth likely started because as a chigger bite gets red and bulges, it can start to surround the chigger itself.

What do chigger bites look like?

You may see a line of small red spots or what look like pimples – raised red bumps or pustules (pus-filled bumps). Chigger bites can happen anywhere on your body, but they often show up in clusters around your waist or lower legs.

The clearest sign you've been bitten by a chigger: the itching. A few hours after you've been bitten, you'll have an urge to scratch – a lot.

The itching usually lasts for several days and can sometimes keep you awake at night. Aside from tiny red bumps, your skin could also get blisters or a hive-like rash that may take a week or two to heal.

If you get a chigger bite on your penis, you could get a condition known as "summer penile syndrome." It causes swelling, itching, and trouble peeing. This can last for a few days to a few weeks.

Scratching a chigger bite could break your skin and lead to irritation or an infection.

Chiggers in the U.S. don't spread disease, but they can in other parts of the world. A bacteria called Orientia tsutsugamushi can be spread from bites of infected chiggers and cause a disease called scrub typhus. It can be life-threatening if not treated with an antibiotic.

Most cases of scrub typhus come from chiggers in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, China, Japan, India, and northern Australia. See a doctor if you've traveled in one of these areas and have any of these symptoms:

  • Chigger bites with dark scabs
  • Skin rash
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Body aches
  • Feeling confused
  • Swollen lymph nodes

If you think you've been around chiggers, give yourself a full body check. You may be able to see tiny red dots, either moving very quickly or attached to your skin.

Your first step: Take a bath or shower and scrub your skin with soap and water. This washes off any chiggers that are still on you.

Using hot water, wash your clothes and any blankets or towels that touched the ground to kill any bugs that are still hanging on.

Then treat your bites with an over-the-counter anti-itch cream or ointment, like menthol, calamine lotion, or hydrocortisone. You can also get relief if you take antihistamine pills or use a cold compress.

You don't need an anti-parasite drug to get rid of chiggers. Oral drugs like ivermectin are prescribed to treat a different kind of mite, called scabies.  

Another myth is that you can kill chiggers by smearing nail polish or petroleum jelly on your skin. This doesn't work either.

Chigger bites usually get better on their own. But if yours still bother you after a few days, see your doctor. In rare cases, you may need steroid shots to calm itching and swelling. Your doctor may also ask you to take antibiotics if your bites become infected.

To help keep these pesky mites out of your yard, try to stay on top of mowing, weeding, and removing brush. In severe cases, some pest control treatments can help. Look for a lawn spray that contains one of these chemicals:

  • Bifenthrin
  • Cyfluthrin
  • Esfenvalerate 
  • Permethrin

To apply, follow the steps on the label. Make sure to keep pets out of the area until it's fully dry. Many pest control products can be toxic to pets.

Keep in mind that these treatments won't get rid of chiggers for good. They'll likely only clear your yard for a week or two.

How to prevent bites

The best way to avoid chigger bites? Try to avoid places where they thrive, such as grassy or wooded areas. (Especially in summer – chiggers love hot, humid weather.)  

When you do spend time outdoors where chiggers may be, use an insect repellent that has DEET or wear clothing treated with an insecticide like permethrin. As you put on bug spray, pay close attention to areas where chiggers might travel from clothing to your skin, like the waist of your pants and the tops of your socks.

Some studies show that natural sprays may help keep chiggers away. Try ones that have oils made from citronella, tea tree, jojoba, eucalyptus, geranium, or lemon grass.

And of course, don't make yourself an easy target for a hungry chigger. Wear long sleeves and long pants, with your pant legs tucked into long socks. Once you come inside, take a shower to wash off any chiggers that may have hitched a ride.

Chiggers on dogs and other pets

Chiggers can feed on your pets as well as you. You're most likely to see them on your dog or cat's head, belly, feet, or ears, because these areas have less fur. Even if you don't see the chiggers themselves, you could notice your pet scratching a lot. You could also spot redness, bumps that may be crusty, and bald patches.

Call your veterinarian for advice on how to help your pet. If scratching has caused their skin to become infected, they may need an antibiotic or other medicine.

Chiggers are mites that feed on your skin, found in areas with tall grass, dead leaves, or lots of brush. While their bite can cause redness, bumps, blisters, and severe itching, chiggers in the U.S. don't cause disease. If you've been exposed to chiggers, wash the area or take a shower as soon as you can. Over-the-counter anti-itch creams are usually enough to soothe your skin.

If your skin gets worse, call your doctor. You may have an infection that needs to be treated.

How long do chiggers stay on you?

Chiggers can stay on your skin for a few days while they feed. Once they're full, they'll drop off. But you don't need to wait for that to happen. Scratching or washing the area is enough to bump a chigger off even sooner. 

Can chiggers live in your bed?

Chiggers are found outside. They only come inside once they're attached to you. That's unlike bedbugs – small, flat bugs that feed on your blood while you sleep. Once a chigger bites you, it can't bite you (or anyone else) again. Bedbugs, on the other hand, can live several months between feedings.

What do chiggers look like on a human body?

Remember, chiggers are so tiny that you probably won't see them. (But you'll feel itchy.) You can see an adult chigger, though. Not only are they bigger and bright red, but they have eight legs instead of six. The good news? Adult chiggers won't bite you.