Chiggers Are The Worst

Important: This post is only for those who are already in love with prairies and will traipse happily through them despite any hazards that may or may not exist. If you’re on the fence about hiking in prairies, trust me – it’s a great idea and you should do it. Just don’t read this post before your hike.

Here’s a piece of trivia most people don’t know: I’m allergic to grass pollen.  Why are you laughing?  I’ve had allergic reactions to grass pollen since I was in high school and blundered through a patch of pollen-laden reed canarygrass while fishing.  It’s not so bad now – it only bothers me when I’m around grasses.  Seriously, that giggling doesn’t become you.  Fortunately, medications and allergy shots have helped a lot and my symptoms these days are pretty minor.

In fact, at this time of year, my grass allergies are way down the list of things that bother me when I’m out in prairies.  Mosquitoes, for example, are pretty nasty this year, especially with all the flooding.  Fortunately, long-sleeved clothing and DEET work well enough to get me through days when there is no breeze to help push them away.  Ticks are abundant right now too, but for some reason I’ve never understood, I rarely find ticks on me – even when colleagues are picking them off themselves regularly. 

Mosquitoes and ticks are annoying, but nothing compared to the bane of my existence during summer fieldwork season – chiggers.  If not for my regular twice-a-day routine of DEET application to my ankles and waist, I would be completely incapacitated by red swollen and itchy bumps all over my body.  I know this to be true because it has happened.  One summer when I was a kid at Boy Scout camp, some researchers were studying chiggers and did pre-camp and post-camp counts of red bumps on Scouts.  Due to an unfortunate “wilderness survival” outing, during which I “slept” all night in tall grass, I was deemed the champion of chigger week by those researchers when my chigger bite count exceeded 900.  That is not an exaggeration.  I spent much of the latter half of that week hiding behind trees where I could scratch the more private areas of my body, where itching was most severe.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to subject you to photos of chigger welts, or even the chiggers themselves (they’re too small for my paltry camera equipment anyway). Instead, I’ll just provide photos of the context within which chiggers attack – like this prairie.

Chiggers have continued to plague me ever since that long-ago summer.  On occasions when I remember to apply DEET, I might get a few chigger bites per day.  When I forget, all bets are off.  I’ve never reached Scout Camp Champion status again, but that is still a reasonable possibility, especially on days when I’m lying in the grass photographing small flowers or insects.

There is a lot of mythology and misinformation surrounding chiggers, so I’d like to set the record straight.  It’s bad enough having to battle chiggers without also having people trying to get me to try home remedies that don’t work or spouting false natural history facts about what chiggers are and how they attack us.  Here are some actual facts about chiggers – I hope they are helpful to you.  If you don’t live in a place where chiggers live, or haven’t had trouble with chiggers like I have, congratulations to you.  You are welcome to skip the rest of this post, unless you’re just morbidly curious about something that afflicts others.

The term “chiggers” actually refers to numerous species of Trombiculid mite, variously known around the world as berry bugs, harvest mites, red bugs, scrub-itch mites, etc.  Approximately 30 species are known to attack animals and feed on their skin cells (more on that in a moment), and they are found around much of the globe except where it is too hot, dry, or high (elevation) for their comfort.  If there is one chigger-related thing for me to be grateful for, it is that North American chiggers don’t seem to be major disease carriers.  In east Asia and the South Pacific, chiggers can cause a disease called scrub typhus (aka Japanese river disease), which can trigger headaches, fever, muscle pain, coughing, and gastrointestinal problems.  Pleasant little creatures, aren’t they?

The larvae of these mites are what actually cause us problems.  Chigger larvae are red, hairy, and tiny – less than ¼ mm in diameter – and have six legs, despite being mites, which are supposed to have eight legs.  (Chigger larvae don’t give a hoot about our so-called rules.)  They can also move much faster than you’d expect, based on their mite-shaped bodies and relatively short legs.  Around here, they hide in tall grass, where they can quickly swarm up our legs as we pass by – especially if we have the audacity to stop and, for example, smell a rose or something foolish like that.  When they do end up on our bodies, they tend to head for areas where clothing is tight (under socks and underwear and behind the knees).  You know, the places hardest to scratch, especially in polite company.

You can’t see them, but they’re there – hiding among the flowers, ready to ambush us as we walk past…

Chiggers don’t actually bite us, but instead poke a tiny hole in our skin and inject us with digestive enzymes.  Those enzymes break down skin cells and form a hole in our skin called a stylostome, through which larvae can suck up our digested skin tissue.  I still refer to welts on my skin as chigger bites because it’s easier to say than “inflamed stylosomes”, but I also recognize how that kind of lazy nomenclature has led to a lot of misunderstanding about chiggers and how they attack us.

That skinny hole in our skin, filled with digestive enyzmes, causes swelling and itching.  While that might sound unsurprising, we’ve actually got countless other tiny creatures feeding on us all the time, both internally and externally, but most of them have the grace to do so without leaving behind big itchy welts.  In a particularly evil twist, the itching and swelling from chigger “bites” doesn’t usually start until 24-48 hours after the initial puncture, by which time the chiggers have likely dropped off.  Once they leave us behind, they mature into nymphs, and then – eventually – adults.  (The nymphs and adults are 8-legged like they’re supposed to be, so apparently it’s just the young hoodlum larvae stage that are particularly rebellious.)

Adult chiggers are predatory, feeding on even smaller arthropods in the soil, and maybe some plant material as well.  During this phase of their lives, they are harmless to prairie ecologists and other people in tall grass, other than the fact that adults create eggs, which then grow into those awful little larvae.  From the information I’ve found online, females are purported to lay only 3 to 8 eggs each, but I’m not sure that low number adequately explains the hordes of chiggers in our prairies.  In temperate zones, chiggers can go through the egg-to-adult cycle three times in a year, but in warmer places, they can be active year-round.

What can we do about chiggers?  Not very darn much, unfortunately.  If you listen to friends or (heaven forbid) look online for remedies, you’ll likely hear all kinds of foolishness.  Trust me, it doesn’t do any good to put rubbing alcohol, nail polish, or bleach (?!) on your skin to try to kill or suffocate the chiggers.  Again, by the time you feel the itchiness, they’re likely long gone.  Even if the chiggers are still there, putting bleach on your skin is just dumb.  Don’t do that.  Plus, once they’ve made the initial hole, itchiness will ensue, regardless of what crazy strategies you employ. 

I shudder to think how many chiggers are climbing the legs of these poor people…

I’ve seen a lot of advice about taking a hot shower or bath, or just rubbing yourself down with a towel or abrasive cloth as soon as you get in from the field.  The idea is to knock chiggers off before they attach, I guess.  Hot showers or baths are also suggested.  I guess those are worth trying, though I’m thinking chiggers are probably attached by the time I get home from the field.  In that case, even if I do rub a chigger off, it’s not going to prevent the itchy welt.  

Maybe dislodging the chigger in my house will prevent it from finding appropriate outdoor habitat for its continued survival and it will die, alone and confused.  Revenge, however, is never the answer (say people who aren’t covered in itchy welts).  More importantly, it wouldn’t surprise me if those dislodged chiggers just attacked me (or my family members) again inside my house.  (To be clear, I have no specific information that dislodged chiggers in your house can or will reattach themselves to you.  I’m just drawing unsubstantiated conclusions based on their apparent overall sinister qualities.)

Here’s my point in all of this.  Chiggers are the worst.  They are miniscule little creeps that sneak onto our bodies to suck out our skin cells and cause severe itchiness in embarrassing places.  They lurk about in tall grass, just waiting to crawl rapidly onto and up our legs as we walk by.  We can’t avoid them (other than by avoiding areas with tall grass, which is, of course, ridiculous), so the best we can do is to wear insect repellant and maybe futilely rub ourselves with a towel when we get back home.  I’m an ecologist with a special affinity for insects and other small creatures, but chiggers are a step too far, even for me.  I hate them.

In unrelated news, prairies are really starting to pop with color right now – it’s a great time to go out and hike!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

36 thoughts on “Chiggers Are The Worst

  1. I can relate! Love my prairies and the walks and the picture taking/id making involved, but all insects find me!
    DEET I will not apply because it burns me up. So I put on all the other stuff like Natural Cutter’s, etc. It seems to keep mosquitos and ticks sort of away, but not chiggers so much.
    Yes, only a dozen or so from my traipsing yesterday. But Chris, I have a miracle relief for the itch. My Girl Scout leader did this for me every year at camp, she brought along a big bottle of Absorbine Jr and literally covered me with the stuff when the red welts showed up. I run a slight temperature when those little devils get me and the liberal application of that green liquid has worked to calm and soothe the swelling and itch away every time. Hope it works for you and all other prairie folks who are so afflicted.

  2. We field biologists from the south can sympathize — chiggers are everywhere and the bane of our fieldwork. Two things to know: chiggers are killed (or at least reduced in number) by fire and repelled by Permethrin. Good luck!

  3. Chiggers are the worst and I too have a remedy. We make a batch of “bug juice” every year that consists of rubbing alcohol, aspirin and camphor. Take a bottle of rubbing alcohol, pour out about 1 inch of liquid, add a section from a block of camphor and add a bottle of 100 aspirin. You can grind up with aspirin first or just let them dissolve in the bottle of alcohol. Shake well before each use as the solution is super saturated. Apply with a paper towel or the like. I learned of this remedy during a summer of field work in western Oklahoma and it works very well. Give it a try!

  4. Just a thought – have you tried plantain? A spit poultice of plantain leaf works wonders on bee stings (personal experience), and I have a salve I’ve made with our campers that combines plantain leaves and dandelion flowers and is supposed to be a cure-all for itchy bug bites in general.

    Also, what about permethrin permeated clothing, like InsectShield? I hear it is terrific for repelling ticks on field biologists…maybe chiggers, too?

    Either way, good luck. Enjoyed reading this piece! :)

  5. I lived with them on a daily basis in Hawaii especially because I had lots of free roam chickens etc. so I always had to wear tall boots with pants tucked in whenever outside on my farm. This included my wedding! These mites seem to not bother some people and they could wear flip-flops!!!!
    One time they took over my house because there were birds nesting in the rafters. I just itchy thinking about the time I saw them on crawling on my smart phone and then saw them everywhere. I had to blindly feel around under roof for the nest!
    The injection site irritation would only last a fraction of the time if I was able to draw out the venom? quickly with a drawing salve. It’s called PRID I would get it at Walmart. Other things can draw out too.
    I always wear boots and tucked in pants into our prairie or else…

    • Prid works great, best to know that it is based with “Ichthammol”. A kind of tar that does help draw out the enzyme. My local Walgreens carries it with the Prid. Much cheaper and lasts longer than Prid. Cover the spots with a bandaid to hold it overnight. Itching and time of it greatly reduced. I swear by the stuff!

  6. I worked with prairie archaeologists and we successfully used pants tucked into boots, then fill a sock filled with sulfur powder and knock it all over the bottom of your pants Legs. Worked for us…

  7. For some reason we do not have chiggers up here in NE South Dakota prairies. For that I am grateful. My bane this time of year are deer flies which have an uncanny way of finding any untreated/unclothed skin (although yesterday one bit me through my gardening glove!). The itching and swelling are enough to make one crazy but not enough to stay out of the prairies – especially this time of year.

  8. Thank you for this article (I think, because now I feel crawly all over). As a long time gardener with a high experience level of chigger interactions, I can tell you that there is definitely something to the hot shower, scrub them off solution. ALL clothes worn in the garden go immediately into the laundry, and I go to the shower. When I do this, I rarely get bites. When I don’t, or delay more than a couple of hours, I get chewed big time. Almost anything that ever bites me causes huge welts, and chiggers are no exception. I’m guessing you may not always have the availability of a quick shower when you are out, but if you do, it DOES work. Good luck, and keep the articles & photos coming. Love them!

  9. Wow those are very nice pictures – despite the creepy little inhabitants that lurk there! As a former Iowa girl, I’ve had my fair amount of chiggers and you are right, they are pretty darn terrible. However, after I dealt for years with the effects of Lyme Disease, ticks might claim the top spot for evil prairie creatures for me! :) Great write up, thanks for busting some of the chigger myths, I had no idea by the time the welts appeared, the offender was already gone.

  10. I’m wearing a dress with no elastic waist or anything tight and I still get the chills thinking of these monsters! When I was a kid, my Mom would put sulfur powder on us before we went fishing. Now, I can’t take sulfa meds. Coincidence?
    Open Harvest used to have the best insect repellent. Naturally, they quit selling it.
    I’m not sure which I hate more: ticks and chiggers, or soaking myself in harmful chemicals.
    While were are on the subject: I heard the other day that citronella candles should not be used around dogs. Eating them can cause illnesses and death. The oil in the air can cause pneumonia. Thanks for this article. It’s fun being able to nod along with hit.

  11. I know there are lots of stories and “home remedies out there, but… We use a hair dryer on knat, misquote, and chigger bites and it reduces the itch factor. Fried of ours in FL swore by it for sand flea bites from the beaches and i was amazed how well it works. You keep the hair dryer on hot and blow as long as you can stand it (not burning yourself to blister obviously) then back off and repeat a time or two. Found some articles on-line about this use too. Mark

    • Hair dryer YES!!! It works for all itchy things for me: mosquitoes, chiggers, poison ivy, etc. First line of defense of course is DEET etc, but one good hot blast with the hair dryer turns the itch off for several hours. I tell everyone I know :)

  12. Chris,

    AFTERBITE comes in a tube and stops the itch AFTER the bite (it works for me even after a fire ant bite). Chiggers always got me around the ankles when exploring sandy areas in East Texas.

    I really enjoy and appreciate your blog!

    Carolyn

  13. TX King Ranch, Cassin’s sparrows skylarking over the tall grass, no restroom for miles so we outdoorswomen shooed the cows away and squatted under a mesquite tree. Monday, back at the office, I was in tears, had to leave work, take Benadryl and lather the spots with Chiggerex. Yes, chiggers are high on my list of Perils of the Prairie but those sparrows were worth it!

  14. The first time I got chiggers, I was advised to wash with Fels Naphtha soap. it’s not available everywhere, but we found some at Walmart,andit does work. I also had a friend recommend Camho-phenique. I agree – chiggers are terrible.

  15. I grew up in the NJ Pine Barrens and hiked them regularly from the age of three (those were very different times) into my mid twenties and never encountered a chigger until my mid-twenties and that was in South Jersey, which is a whole ‘nother ecosystem. I now pick them up quite regularly in my old stomping grounds and in my backyard in Central Jersey (yeah, we divide out tiny state into at least three sections and fight over which section we actually live in).

    I suspect that there are two factors at work in this increase. The first is that from the mid Sixties through the mid Seventies, it was township practice to fog the neighborhoods with DDT every night in the summer to keep mosquitoes down. We also had a dearth of ticks, which are insanely common now. The second factor is that we had a lot more wild fires back then and the third factor (yeah I know, I said two factors. Bite me, oh wait, the chiggers beat you to it.) is that we have hordes of deer that just weren’t present when I was a kid. There are either the same number of deer as people in the state or possibly more depending on where you might find yourself.

    I am curious to know how long the effects of the bite last for other people. For me, it seems like I’m scratching holes in my hide for at least a month.

    • Mine would last a month if I didn’t draw out the injected stuff from the chigger.
      I think the chiggers that bite me were larvae of the bird mite. I had free roam chickens and lots of other birds around house. I am wondering if total lack of predators for birds and deer are part of the mite and tick population rise you mentioned.
      I would love to know how the chiggers choose their dining victims. Some people are not bothered by them.

  16. Quote: –>>> “I’m an ecologist with a special affinity for insects and other small creatures, but chiggers are a step too far, even for me. I hate them.”
    ===

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate this is why you enthusiasticaly write so much about fire in the prairie maintenance scheme of things *smile*

  17. I’ve had chiggers twice: once following a visit to the Konza Prairie in Kansas, and once from a field trip to a restored meadow in a park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. None of the other participants in the Philadelphia park visit got chiggers–why me? I guess I’m like you’re colleagues who collect ticks when they don’t get on you, Chris–I’m a “chigger magnet.”

    Speaking of ticks, their larval stage also has 6 legs, whereas the nymphs and adults have 8 legs–like the chiggers.

  18. Back in the day, my mother would put nail polish over the bite. She said it was to smother them. So I guess it just felt better because it was a mother’s love, and not the polish. I do think that washing clothes and taking a bath as soon as possible helps a tremendous amount with them.

  19. I have never had chiggers bite me but ticks, mosquitos, flies, and spiders think I am petty tasty. I usually soak in an Epsom salt and oatmeal bath and the itchiness goes away. I have also found that most insects do not like tea tree oil. It only works for me in my back yard where I don’t have too many chewers.

  20. Hi Chris, your post makes me want to send you a case of Benadryl cream. It helps me with chigger-induced itching and swelling.

  21. I’ve made the switch from DEET to Picaridin and my bites from ALLLLL biting insects has dramatically reduced 100 fold for sure. I haven’t tried it with chiggers (I am deathly allergic to grass, so I’m generally pretty bundled up when working on the prairies). Worth a try?

  22. The truth about chiggers? Fels-Naptha, Campho-Phenique, nail polish — all these inject carcinogens directly into the bloodstream. Fels-Naptha is no longer a lye soap; it is a petrochemical product more similar to dry-cleaning chemicals. These also greatly lengthen the time it times for the bites to heal. Hot air dryers do the same.

    Dying is itchy business. I’ve researched the topic extensively for my book on poison oak and ivy appropriately named Itchy Business. I even teach a class called Practice Safe Scratch. The itch of chigger bites is from necrosis, or dying skin cells. There is only one way to fix the itch: grow new skin cells.

    First step is to stop the necrosis momentum. Fels-Naptha/etc ramps up the momentum, actually increases necrosis. So does hot air and water.

    Be nice to your skin!

    How to stop necrosis? Apply alkaline to neutral pH compounds like salt water, minerals like magnesium and zinc, and certain herbs and vegetables, Best product: Simply Saline Rinse by Arm & Hammer. It also has a slight numbing agent. Looking for something on hand? Apply MIlk of Magnesia. Better yet, put these in the refrigerator first. Cold slows necrosis and also helps with itch.

    What grows new skin cells? Sulfur-based creams as long as they are not mineral-oil or lanolin based. Any cosmetic cream pitched as creating glowing skin which often has allantoin and other skin-growth compounds. A plethora of herbal products outlined in my book.

    Why do some people get bite and others don’t? The thickness of your acid mantle and epidermis. Your acid mantle is oily; chiggers have difficulty with that. Why do they bite you around the socks and waistband? The tightness makes micro indentions that allow the chigger’s injection to penetrate. Yes, that’s right, hiking naked works for chiggers.

    • Hmmmmm. All I know is the hair dryer kills the itch for several hours, no matter what itch I have (fire ants, mosquitoes, poison ivy). It does not seem to shorten or lengthen the healing time (about 2.5 days for me for mosquito bites). It works WAY better than any cream. I used to try ice, but it only lasts a few minutes, unless you want to spend all day holding ice on the affected area (not usually an option). (A good backup: a metal spoon heated in hot water, then applied to the area. Just test it carefully, so you don’t burn yourself.)

      The hairdryer is quick, easy, not messy, no chemicals…necrosis is going to happen regardless, I assume. I’ll take the process minus the itch!

  23. A fellow sufferer feels your pain. I have heard that the person violated by these creatures has to be somewhat allergic to them. This explains the spouse who walks beside you and suffers no consequences.

  24. There’s nothing like seeing a personal anguish acknowledged — and so well described! — by someone else. I grinned and laughed all the way through your post: but it was a laugh of rueful recognition.

    One of the best days of my life was the day I took the advice of a nature photographer from Massachusetts and started spraying my clothes with a good dose of Sawyer’s permethrin before going out in the field. I spray shirt, jeans, and socks, let them dry overnight, and I’m good to go. Each spraying remains effective through several washings, and with a little added mosquito spray, I’ve reduced chigger and mosquito bites from horror-movie level to occasional. The stuff works against ticks, too.

  25. I only get chiggers in tallgrass prairie. I never get them in short grass. A colleague says the reverse. I have with out facts attributed this to differences in how different humans react to different species of mites. By the way, I tried eliminating underwear and socks and had no better luck.

  26. AMEN. Great Information. I do so well on treatment and about mid-July (now), I have one lapse doing something quick like crossing the yard to turn the hose on and wham, I am slammed with chiggers and go into misery. I am scared to even look at smooth brome or green/yellow foxtail.

  27. When I was a kid, I got the worst collections of chiggers when I picked elderberries from road ditches. You are right they are the very worst creatures ever hatched.

  28. I agree with your sentiment and will plan carefully to avoid being a meal. Avon skin so soft is useless for mosquitoes but works for chiggers and ticks. The trick is to carefully cover all of your skin. Be sure the private areas are well oiled too. This lasts all day until you wash it off.

  29. YES! I hate chiggers. Do you have any sense as to whether or not there are less in prairies that were burned that year? I see to only get them in unburned prairie (or other places in the US).

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