You might be out for a stroll in the park with your kids. Or maybe enjoying an afternoon on the golf course. That outdoor fun, though, sometimes comes with a price -- an itchy rash from pests you can't even see.
They're called chiggers -- bugs so small you need a magnifying glass to spot them. They aren't dangerous, but their bites can leave you with a powerful urge to scratch.
Don't let them get the best of you! Learn how to soothe your irritated skin and find out how to prevent bites the next time you go outside.
What Are Chiggers and Where Do They Lurk?
Scientists call these creatures "trombiculid mites." But they have a bunch of nicknames. You might hear people call them harvest mites, harvest bugs, harvest lice, mower's mites, or red bugs.
Technically, these critters aren't insects. They're "arachnids," in the same family as spiders and ticks.
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.
Adult chiggers don't bite. It's the babies, called larvae, that you have to watch out for. They're red, orange, yellow, or straw-colored, and no more than 0.3 millimeters long.
After they hatch from eggs, the babies don't fly and don't travel 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 degrees F, and they die when it gets colder than 42.
What to Expect From a Chigger Bite
Once chiggers latch onto your pants or shirt, they crawl around until they find a patch of skin. There, they use sharp, jaw-like claws to make tiny holes. Next, they inject saliva that turns some of your cells into mush.
Why do they do it? To a chigger, those liquefied cells are food. When they get on you, they can stay attached to your skin for several days while they eat.
Chigger bites can happen anywhere on your body, but they often show up in clusters around the waist or lower legs. You may not notice anything wrong at first, but in a few hours you'll start to itch.
The itching usually lasts for several days and can sometimes keep you awake at night. You may also notice that your skin turns red and has bumps, blisters, or a hive-like rash that may take a week or two to heal.
If you're a guy and 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.
Chiggers don't spread diseases but scratching could break the skin and lead to irritation or an infection.
If you have travelled internationally, be aware that the bacteria Orientia tsutsugamushi from bites of infected chiggers (larval mites) can cause scrub typhus. Most cases are reported from exposure to chiggers in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, China, Japan, India and northern Australia. See a doctor if this is the case.
What to Do if You Get Bites
If you think you've been around some 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.
Chigger bites usually get better on their own. But if yours are still bothering 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.
How to Prevent Bites
When you spend time outdoors in grassy areas, use an insect repellent that has DEET or wear clothing treated with an insecticide like permethrin. As you put on bug spray, pay special attention to areas where chiggers might travel from clothing to skin, like cuffs, necklines, and the top edges of 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.
These simple tips lower your odds of getting chigger bites. Then you can enjoy the great outdoors -- itch-free!