Wilderness First Aid Q&A

How do you treat chigger bites?

Q: What are red bugs and how do you treat them?

A: Red bugs, chiggers, berry bugs, scrub-itch mites and harvest mites are all terms used to describe members of the family of insects known as Trombiculidae. These reddish-orange mites can be found worldwide, but they really enjoy hanging out in damp, grassy and wooded areas, especially at the edges of forests. In the United States, chiggers are mostly found in the southeast, south and midwest. They are most active from early spring to early autumn, until the first frost.

Chigger larvae might infest humans by crawling up our shoes and legs as we make our way through the scrub. What’s kind of cool is that they do not actually bite us. Likewise, they do not burrow into our skin, and they do not suck our blood. Instead, chiggers use their mouths to drill tiny holes into our skin through which they secrete specialized salivary enzymes designed to break down our skin cells from the inside. Then, they slurp up the mixture through a tube formed by hardened skin cells called a stylosome. Basically, it’s like drinking a big “YOU” protein shake!

Your skin does not take too kindly to all of this drilling and parasitic digestion. Consequently, humans typically develop intensely itchy, bright red pimple-like bumps or hives or a generalized skin rash in the areas where the mites were attached, even up to 24 to 48 hours after exposure. Chiggers prefer to attach to skin at areas where the clothing fits tightly against the body, such as at the tops of socks or around the elastic edges of underwear, so a rash in these areas may be a clue to the specific cause.

So, what can you do for a chigger rash? First, forget the old myth of applying fingernail polish to the affected areas. Chiggers do NOT burrow into the skin, so trying to suffocate the mites with polish makes no sense at all. Second, chiggers do not lay eggs in the skin, so stop worrying about that.

Chigger wounds are a complex mixture of mechanical damage to the skin (the drilling), enzymatic disruption of the skin (the digestion), and your body’s own attempt to get rid of the parasite. Consequently, the most important thing to do is to prevent chigger infestation. Avoid camping in warm, moist temperate climates of high mammal density, including livestock pastures, natural parks and preserves.

If the area is infested, get out of there quickly and wash your skin vigorously with soap and water. Itching is best alleviated through the use of topical corticosteroids (either over-the-counter hydrocortisone 1% ointment or prescription strength from your physician) and anti-histamines like Benadryl. Watch out for severe rashes that can become secondarily infected with bacteria; in these cases, consult a doctor immediately.

Now you know a “mitey” bit more about chiggers than you did before!

Comments about “How do you treat chigger bites?”

  1. ni says:

    clear nail polish works great

  2. tackman says:

    If they get on your dogs and in the house how do u treat them?

  3. Hailey says:

    wow that is alot of work

  4. Walkin in the woods says:

    Benadryl works ok but it makes me sleepy. I rub deodorant/ antiperspirant on the itch. It takes the edge off :)

  5. very itchey says:

    Thanks for the info

  6. Anonymous says:

    Red bugs are orange

  7. itchy princess says:

    i slept over to my sister’s house who has a cat and I am itching like crazy because she let the cat out side and ut came back in with flees and other stuff so now I have flee bites and other itchy red bites that itch and hurt and they also made my ankles swollen.

  8. Gotbit! says:

    My doctor (allergist) thought they were spider bites but when my daughter got them around her waistband also a few days later I knew it was something else. We have used the maximum strength hydrocortisone crème with a bandaid over to keep the crème in place. This has helped some but I am trying some of these other remedies. Thanks!

  9. Kell says:

    Scratch the scale off and put fingernail polish or spray whith hair spray

  10. dee says:

    hmmm i might have chiggers need to thry this tea tree oil, lavender oil and cedarwood oil or euclyptus oil. lol

  11. ... says:

    Tooth paste actually does help!!!

  12. Hiker Fanatic says:

    Prevention is the key. Powder sulfur on shoes, socks and pants. Along with insect repellent liberally sprayed all over your body. Once out of the woods hot shower vigorously scrubbing every inch of your anatomy with soap and repeat. Immediately wash clothes in HOT water. Do this regimen every time your in the woods and it can save days of misery.

  13. Bob says:

    I take extremely hot showers – pat your body dry – then swab the bites with rubbing alcohol. Repeat in 12 hours. Do this for 2 or 3 days. When the hot showers stop giving feelings in the bite areas, the bites should heal. Be prepared for the bites to look bad for up to 3 weeks.

  14. DieChiggers! says:

    I’m suffering from chigger bites. The only thing that stops the intense itching is something very simple: toothpaste. I don’t know why, but it works. Hope this tip helps someone else.

  15. bbite pain says:

    I did not know it was chiggers. I thought bed bugs. mite infection.
    Mostly I had never felt anything like it since chickenpox.

  16. Angie says:

    Baking soda baths help neutralize the sting of them as well. I took 4 tbsp baking soda and 4 tbsp cornstarch and whisked it into coconut oil (in its liquid state- warm) , then put it in fridge a while to turn solid. Rub that on bites and it works! Great relief… I later added a drop of tea tree oil — even better!!! Use powdered sulfer from garden center dusted on shoes and socks to prevent them

  17. concern mom says:

    where do you buy all these oils? I purchased some teatree oil and have been using it on my daughters hair to eliminate lice. Now we need your help on where to buy the other four oils. Thank.

  18. itchy-scratchy says:

    Neem oil diluted in hot water. Let the water cool down.Then add cedarwood oil, eucalyptus oil, teatree oil and lavender oil. Put it all in a spray bottle and spray on yourself. If the cedarwood oil doesnt kill it then neem oil will make it lose Interest in food, mating and it’ll die of starvation! Goodluck!

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  • Dr. Andrew C. Krakowski is the host of the boonDOCS Wilderness & Travel Medicine show on Outdoor Channel. He is the founder of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine's wilderness medicine program and currently works in the field of pediatric dermatology at the Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego.

    Dr. K loves the outdoors and believes that knowledge, adaptability, and experience are essential for being prepared in the wilderness.