Chiggers: How to Identify, Control & Get Rid of Them

Tiny red chigger insect on the underside of a leaf.
Mironmax Studio​/ Getty Images

If you or members of your family—or family pets—are afflicted with itchy bites but have no memory of seeing an insect, it's very likely you are suffering from chigger bites. Chiggers are mites in their immature stage, which can lurk in your backyard in tall grass, weed patches, and humid spots underneath trees. They might be anywhere you venture outdoors where there’s brush or thicket combined with moisture, such as along stream banks. Chiggers cause itchy bites that can last for several days. There are ways you can protect yourself from getting chiggers and control them in your backyard.

A common misconception is that chiggers burrow under the skin, but this is not true—the itchy red spots are simply an allergic reaction to the saliva of the bites of these tiny pests.

What Are Chiggers?

Chiggers, also known as red bugs, harvest lice, or harvest mites, are the larvae of certain mites of the Trombiculidae family. There are dozens of genera within this family, and hundreds of species, but the chiggers present in your landscape are limited to those species native to your region. In North America, most chiggers are insects from the Trombicula genus, especially the T. alfreddugesi species. The species native to North America generally do not spread diseases of any kind.

What Do Chiggers Look Like?

Like spiders and ticks, chiggers are arachnids—but extremely small ones. The red-colored larvae of chiggers are so small—only 1/120 to 1/150 of an inch—that you can barely see them with the naked eye. If you do, they will look like dust particles—though you may see them move. If you see tiny red spots moving across a sidewalk, you are likely seeing chiggers.

In cooler climates, late spring and early summer is prime time for chiggers but in warmer, humid climates, chigger larvae can be present year-round, as they produce up to five generations per year.

Signs of Chigger Infestation

The only real indication you'll get that chiggers are a problem in your landscape is when people or pets develop maddening itchy bites—without ever witnessing the insect itself. After the mite eggs hatch in the spring, the fast-moving six-legged larvae climb onto low-growing vegetation and wait for suitable hosts to come along: cats, dogs, rodents, reptiles, birds, and humans.

The larvae attach to the skin of their host, preferably soft skin, and inject their saliva into it. The digestive enzymes in the saliva liquefy the host’s skin cells, which causes the typical chigger rash and intense itching that starts three to six hours after the chiggers have attached to the skin. Most often, victims will experience bites around the ankles, and sometimes waistline areas if they have been working in tall brush. If they are not removed, chiggers remain on the human skin for about four days. When they are done feeding, the chiggers drop off. In their later stages as nymphs and adults, chiggers do not prey on hosts any longer.

While the bites themselves can leave itchy welts, they are not in themselves dangerous. However, intense scratching of the welts can open the skin to secondary infections.

Chigger bite
Chigger bite John Brandauer / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Three Ways to Get Control Chiggers

Control the Environment

You can control chiggers by making your yard less attractive for them. Chiggers like moist areas with dense vegetation. Prune your trees and shrubs to let in more sunlight and decrease humidity. Regularly mow your lawn and mow closely around trees, shrubs, and along edges between garden beds and woody or naturalized areas.

Rodents and other small mammals are main hosts for chiggers. By removing piles of debris and brush, you discourage these animals from settling down in your yard and bringing chiggers with them.

Change Your Habits

If you are an environmentally conscious homeowner, you might wonder how chigger prevention and naturalized landscapes go together. They do! Controlling chiggers does not mean that everything has to be manicured. You can still have your pollinator gardens and meadow-style beds, and provide shelter for desirable wildlife. Just as with ticks, take appropriate protective measures.

The common recommendation is to avoid brushing against vegetation, which is simply not practical for gardeners. But you can make a practice of wearing proper protective clothing when working in tall grass, overgrown areas, and brush. Wear long sleeves and pants and treat your clothing with insect repellent. Check the label if the product effectively repels chiggers. Insect repellents containing DEET do, and there are also DEET-free alternatives. Wear boots and tuck the pant legs into them.

Shower immediately with soap when you get back indoors because chiggers don’t attach to the skin right away—they wander around first. Don’t wear clothing again after being in locations where chiggers might be present. Launder it first on a hot washing cycle.

Protect yourself from chiggers with pants and boots
Protect yourself from chiggers with pants and boots Getty Images / RCKeller

Use Insecticides

Unless you have a place in your yard that is infested with chiggers in consecutive years, spraying insecticides is not usually a good solution. But chiggers overwinter in the soil, so if you have a chigger hot spot, you might consider spraying the low-growing vegetation with products containing bifenthrin, carbaryl, cyhalothrin, or permethrin for a one-time application in late April through mid-June when the chiggers hatch. Keep in mind that broad-spectrum insecticides also kill beneficial insects and should only be the last resort. Like with all chemicals, read the label carefully.

It is not very effective to spray the entire lawn, as these insects avoid direct sunlight and usually are found only in unkempt areas and tall grass.

What Causes Chiggers?

Chiggers thrive in areas where there is long grass and brush to provide shady, moist areas in which to breed, and where there are plentiful animal hosts to provide blood—mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

How to Get Rid of Chiggers Permanently

There really is no effective way to completely rid your landscape of chiggers permanently—nor would you want to, as such methods would probably require copious amounts of chemical treatment, which would also harm pollinators and other helpful insects.

However, you can greatly reduce chigger populations by eliminating brush and areas of long grass. Good sun exposure to all areas of your landscape will greatly reduce the numbers of these insects.

Chiggers vs. Fleas

Chiggers are often mistaken for fleas, especially since the only evidence may be an itchy bite that raises a skin welt. When pets begin to scratch themselves intensely, it's often assumed they are plagued with fleas, but it may very well be chiggers that are biting them. There are some ways to determine which insects are biting you and your pets:

  • Bright red in color

  • Tiny, almost microscopic

  • Resembles a crawling spider

  • Bites are often clustered

  • Bites are pinpoint red spots

  • Reddish brown in color

  • Small, but usually visible

  • Tear-drop shaped, jumper

  • Bites are single

  • Bites are raised welts, often with halos

  • Do chiggers spread disease?

    Generally, chiggers in North America are not known as spreaders of disease, though in East Asia and the South Pacific there are types of chiggers known to spread a form of typhus. However, scratching chigger bites can open the skin up to possible bacterial infections.

  • How long do chiggers live?

    The entire lifecycle of the insect varies by species and can be as little as two months or as much as 12 months. But the larval stage is where the insect feeds on blood. This larval stage lasts only until the larva succeeds in its quest for a blood meal, at which point it drops off and enters its nymph state on the way to becoming an adult.

    Depending on the climate, the insects may reproduce many times, but in most regions of North America, two or three generations per year is typical.

  • During what time of year are chiggers most prevalent?

    In most areas of North America, chiggers go through two or three cycles, and the period from May until frost is regarded as chigger season, though late spring and early summer are the most conducive to chiggers. In frost-free regions, chiggers are possible at any time of year, but will be most prevalent during moist seasons.

Article Sources
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