How To Get Rid of Chiggers

Avoid these pesky red bugs and prevent them from biting in the summer.
By Sherri Deatherage Green
June/July 2005
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Don't let these nasty little bugs make you a prisoner in your home.
Photo courtesy NATIONAL CHIGGER COLLECTION
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It’s summer again, the season when chiggers make cowards of us all. Wouldn’t it be great to skip through fields of wildflowers and roll around in cool grass like the people in allergy medicine commercials do? Anyone that reckless either doesn’t get out much or is too young to know better. Call the rest of us “once bitten, twice shy” because meadows and lush grass often are guarded by chiggers — tiny “red bugs” that leave small and terribly itchy wounds on human hosts in the most delicate and unmentionable places.

Ounce for ounce, the almost-microscopic chigger may cause more irritation than any other critter. Yet contrary to popular belief, chiggers don’t suck blood or burrow under the skin. They eat skin cells, which they dissolve with digestive enzymes. The human immune system defends bitten areas by forming a hard wall of cells, called a stylostome. Conveniently for the chigger, these stylostomes double as strawlike feeding tubes. And there’s the rub — and the scratch — it’s your own immune system’s response that causes the intense itching.

Undercover Chiggers

Chiggers are not true insects — they actually are immature mites — though they do scamper around on six legs in their troublesome larval stage. Like their parasitic tick cousins, chigger larvae attach themselves to hosts to feed by inserting minute mouthparts into skin, usually at hair follicles. Chiggers are found worldwide. In the United States, they are most common in the Southeast and Midwest because they thrive in humid weather amid thick vegetation.

Science seldom turns its microscope on chiggers because, as annoying as they may be, chiggers don’t destroy crops or otherwise cause catastrophes worthy of big research bucks. But the U.S. Army considers chiggers enemies well worth studying. Servicemen in World War II never knew they had been bitten until they came down with scrub typhus, a disease covertly spread by tropical Asian chiggers that causes fever, headaches and swollen lymph glands. Bill Wildman, an environmental health officer at Irwin Army Community Hospital in Fort Riley, Kan., notes the species found in North America do not spread diseases.

Humans are accidental victims of chiggers because most of these mites evolved to feed on reptiles and birds, says M. Lee Goff, curator of the National Chigger Collection, housed at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He and his predecessors have accumulated about 25,000 specimens representing 1,800 identified chigger species. Goff, who also is the forensics science program chairman at Chaminade University in Hawaii, says chigger species in Southeast Asia evolved to feed on mammals and can spread disease because the human immune system does not reject their enzymes and the chigger bites don’t itch.

Goff may be one of the few humans on the planet to admit affection for the pests. “They are actually very attractive little mites. They have a velvety appearance,” he says. But chiggers in a lab are much safer than chiggers around your child’s swing. Fortunately, you can do several things to take much of the chigger itch out of summer.

Chigger Controls

Begin by avoiding shady areas of tall grass and brush, and regularly mow areas where children play. Short grass gives chiggers fewer hiding places at midday. “They are really not very hardy and can’t take much sunlight,” Wildman says.

In other parts of your property, chiggers are likely present in large numbers in some spots, while places only 10 feet away may be chigger-free. So, one person in a berry-picking party may suffer multiple bites while another remains untouched. This is because female chiggers, which begin hatching from overwintered eggs when temperatures rise above 60 degrees, lay eggs in clusters, and hatchlings don’t stray far from each other. Thousands may wait patiently in leaves and grass until a mouse, lizard or errant human walks past. Then, attracted by the carbon dioxide the animal exhales, the chigger larvae quickly scurry to find a place to feed. On a warm day, they can make it from your shoe to your waistband in only 15 minutes.

This clustering — and the fact that long, humid summers can produce three generations of chiggers — makes broadcasting insecticides ineffective. Plus, many chemicals once used to control chiggers have been banned from home use, Goff says.

Some chigger fighters identify “hot spots” by propping up squares of black cardboard vertically around their yards. If the mites are nearby, they will crawl to the top of the cardboard and can be seen with a magnifying glass. Setting out a chunk of dry ice on a white sheet also will attract chiggers because they are drawn to carbon dioxide.

The problem with both approaches, however, is that they attract other kinds of mites as well. The ones you find may not be chiggers. Besides, anyone who gets close enough to watch them probably will be itching soon.

Stinky stuff keeps chiggers away. The Karankawa tribe knew this. That’s why these Gulf Coast dwellers slathered themselves with alligator grease. A smelly-but-dry modern alternative is sulphur powder (available at pharmacies); it’s an effective repellent for people who aren’t bothered by the odor. Just shake your socks in a plastic bag with a tablespoon of the powder before going outside. Those more accepting of chemical methods may choose over-the-counter repellents containing diethyltoluamide (DEET) as a less pungent repellent.

Experts recommend wearing long sleeves and tall boots, and stuffing your pants into your socks when venturing into chigger territory. Then, shower and wash your clothes as soon as you can. Some chiggers wander about for hours before finding a place to feed, so you often have time to wash them off. If it’s too hot to dress defensively, stop every half hour or so and vigorously rub your skin, including those soft, tender spots that chiggers love (waistband and underarms). Chiggers brush off rather easily, but because they are too small to cause a tickle, it’s important to rub yourself down before you start itching.

When the itching starts, the parasites often are long gone, and we’re left with bright red bumps that drive us crazy for as long as two or three weeks. Antihistamines, hydrocortisone creams and cool compresses will help provide relief. Benadryl, a topical antihistamine, comes in gel, cream, spray and “itch stick” form. A dab of fingernail polish may remind you not to scratch, but it does nothing to cure the itch.

When the six-legged larvae are done feeding (this can take from one to several days), they drop off the hosts and transform into eight-legged nymphs, which mature to the adult stage. Adult chiggers prefer eggs of springtails, isopods and mosquitoes to humans and animals.

The Itch Becomes the Snitch

Besides giving the residents of Cooper a reason to party, chiggers also proved useful to humans when they helped police in Thousand Oaks, Calif., solve a murder more than 20 years ago. Nearly all the investigators and rescue workers who found the victim came home with chigger bites. When the distinctive red bumps appeared on one of the suspects, authorities knew they had their man. Like rain, chiggers aren’t all that common in Southern California.


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Post a comment below.

 

Yvette
10/6/2014 11:28:43 AM
I went hiking 3 days ago and now I have chigger bites that started on my legs, and every day I find more bites that just appear. I also got into some seed ticks, but I thought I got all of those off. They weren't on my legs, just got on my wrist when I went to pick a flower. Does that mean the chiggers are still on me?

Joss
9/7/2014 11:13:13 AM
Coconut oil can help relieve the itch and heal the lesions and rashes places too!

sweetness
7/9/2013 9:25:47 AM

Apple cider vinegar, the worlds best thing ever, is GREAT for chigger bites. I have a friend who surveys, often in the absolute wildest spots of Louisianna, Mississippi and Arkansas. He, his eyeman and supervisor were often covered with chigger bites, as well as mosquito, deerfly and midges. Now, at least once a day, M strips in the field and sprays himself all over with full strength ACV. "M's naked again!" they say. "I'm not gonna itch tonight!" he replies.


Wayne
7/6/2013 12:36:50 PM
Instead of buying lots of expensive essintial oils I just purchased a bottle of All NAtural Bug Repellent from this site. pestfree.thegreenwayformula.com..Already premixed and ready to rock and roll against biting bugs. I like it because there are no chemicals,pesticides, or pyrethins, a real bad nasty if you look it up. And I can use it on my grandkids or pets. And one thing else, spray it on bites and feel the relief almost instantly.

Dave
7/6/2013 11:00:22 AM
My wife and I recently had the "fun" of being bitten by chiggers in FL on a trip out west. After the itching started we rubbed on Corn Huskers Lotion. We rubbed it in for at least a minute on all the bites. After about 10 minutes the itching pretty much went away. We continued to use the lotion for several weeks and it took the itching away. Twice before I had chigger bites and nothing worked. It was so great to find something that actually gave us some relief.

Charlie_15
5/25/2009 11:41:20 AM
I visit home ,in Missouri every Summer or Fall. The past 3 years ,I have gotten into the Chiggers real bad. Upon conversing with one of my aquaintences,the subject of the pesky little critters came up. This fellow is an avid outdoorsman and has a no bite solution for defence aginst Chigger bites. First of all find some place that sells the old lye soap,(Silver Dollar City) in South Missouri was mentioned. Bath with it daily as you normally would. The residual on your skin will keep the little bugs at bey. Next ,rub a anti-perspirant around your legs and on your anckels before doning your clothes. Anti-perspirants block pores and thus disallow the little critters the point of access to your skin.

Lisa D.
7/25/2008 1:50:59 PM
When my son was in the military they used to go into the 'field' and were advised to swallow the head from a regular kitchen match. It seems that this small amount of sulphur, ingested, will repel most ticks and chiggers. I picked blackberries recently here in the foothills of the Ozark Mtns in Arkansas and didn't suffer a single bite!

Lisa D.
7/25/2008 1:44:58 PM
While my son was in the military they often went out into the 'field'. Before going, they were advised to swallow the head of a regular kitchen match. It seems that this small amount of sulphur repels most ticks and chiggers.

James Horner
7/24/2008 5:35:53 PM
When I was small, my Sister and I would roll in the grass and be eaten alive with chiggers. My Grandfather soaked a reg in kerosene and wiped our arms and legs with it. Instant relief. Don't use it to lavishly and shower after. No problem.

HGFarris
7/24/2008 2:03:12 PM
The best thing to get rid of chiggers is a Hot Tub. Found that getting the water over 101 degrees really makes them mad. Get the water about 102 degrees and they die in less than 5 minutes. The itch goes away too. The bite/chigger will itch like crazy for the first couple minutes then its gone completly.

Dean_1
7/24/2008 8:47:56 AM
The best tip we ever got for chigger control was simply to shower nightly during chigger season, scrubbing the body very well everywhere with a rough washcloth. This scrapes them off before they can do too much damage. But, alas, it's easy to forget to shower *every* night to fight these pests...

p f hogue
7/24/2008 8:23:52 AM
bleach and water mix will stop the itch, wash area with a 3 cups water to 3 table spoons bleach. wet area down good and let air dry.

Virginia F.
7/23/2008 3:17:08 PM
I grew up in rural Georgia and my Deddy taught me to chew several pine needles (and swallow the juice)to prevent chigger bites when we went blackberry picking, etc. From what I remember it worked. Guess your breath smelled differently? He thought it got in your blood and was abhorrent to the little buggers. After you got all the juice out you rubbed the chewed needles on your clothes. I used to watch my brothers 'pick' chiggers off of their bodies with the point of a pocket knife when they got home from working for the forestry service one summer. Ok. Now I'm twitchy - itchy. Hee hee.

D Pete
7/23/2008 2:02:04 PM
while in the Navy stationed in Virginia i came down with the chiggers. I was in torment for a week until I found that a little nail polish applied over the red spot cooled the itch plus when I pulled off the polish after it dried it pulled the lil critter off with it.

vickisgoats
7/22/2008 11:28:48 PM
i live in arkansas WE HAVE CHIGGERS i have found that pure tea tree oil, the kind you find a any pharmacy, seem to work the best, rub on skin and it not only helps stop the iching it helps promote healing much quicker








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