What Are Chiggers?
Chiggers are members of the arachnid family (the same family that includes spiders and scorpions). They are smaller than a period at the end of a sentence. Most can only be seen with a magnifying glass.
Chiggers are found all over the outdoors, including in grassy fields, along lakes and streams, and in forests. It's the baby chiggers that bite people and animals.
What Happens When Chiggers Bite
Chiggers have tiny claws that allow them to attach tightly to people and animals. Once attached, a chigger pierces the skin and injects its saliva. The saliva contains digestive juices that dissolve skin cells. The chigger eats the dissolved cells. After a couple of days the chigger falls off, leaving a red bump on the skin.
Chigger bites are itchy red bumps that can look like pimples, blisters, or small hives. They are usually found around the waist, ankles, or in warm skin folds. They get bigger and itchier over several days, and often appear in groups.
Chigger bites start to itch within hours of the chigger attaching to the skin. The itch stops after a few days, and the red bumps heal over 1-2 weeks.
Some guys who have chigger bites on the penis develop a reaction known as "summer penile syndrome." This can cause swelling of the penis, itching, and painful urination.
Treating Chigger Bites
Most of the time, a chigger bite is like a mosquito bite or any other insect bite — annoying but not harmful. You can usually treat chigger bites at home.
Wash chigger bites vigorously with soap and water to help remove any chiggers that are still attached to the skin. Calamine lotion or anti-itch creams can help with the itching. You can also get some relief by holding a cool washcloth over the bites. Try not to scratch the bites because scratching can cause a bite to become infected.
When to Call a Doctor
Call your doctor's office if:
- over-the-counter creams or lotions don't help the itching
- a bite looks infected (watch for warmth, redness, swelling, tenderness, or pus)
Your doctor can diagnose chigger bites just by looking at them and getting a little information about your recent outdoor activities.
There aren't any medications made especially for treating chigger bites. Your doctor will probably prescribe over-the-counter medications if you haven't tried them already. If your doctor thinks you have an infection, he or she might prescribe antibiotics.
If a guy has chigger bites on his penis, the doctor might prescribe antihistamines and recommend using cool compresses.
Protecting Yourself From Chiggers
Insect repellents that contain 10%-30% DEET are most effective at preventing chigger bites.
If you're spending a lot of time outdoors, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants that are tucked into shoes, especially if you're hiking. This can help protect you against other biting critters like ticks and mosquitoes, as well as chiggers.
Take a hot shower after you get back inside, and wash your clothes in hot water. Clothes also can be treated with a specific insecticide to help prevent bites.
Chigger bites aren't contagious, so you can't catch them from someone or give them to somebody else. You can still play sports and do all your normal activities unless the itching makes you too uncomfortable.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: October 2014
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