You might as well call chiggers “no-see-ums.” That’s because chiggers are so tiny you rarely, if ever, see them on your body. They are also known as red bugs, berry bugs (because they seem to hang out around berry bushes), and harvest mites. The latter is a good name for them because they are not actually bugs. They are known as Trombiculidae, a tiny little critter in the mite family. By the way, no-see-ums are actually sand flies that belong to the family Ceratopogonidae. They are known as midges rather than mites. This reader wants to know if there is any way to prevent chigger bites. The photo is of sulfur powder, an old-fashioned but surprisingly effective remedy!
Q. When I do yard work, what would you recommend I put on so I do not get chigger bites? They itch horribly.
A. Chiggers are the larval stage of tiny mites. Their bites create an intensely itchy, inflammatory response in susceptible people.
Some people are extremely vulnerable to chigger bites. Not only do they get red itchy spots where they have been bitten, they develop blisters that are hard to heal. Prevention is definitely the way to go if possible.
Another reader offers her strategy to prevent chigger bites.
Q. I am extremely susceptible to chigger bites. I have been spending a lot more time in my yard this spring and want to share my preventive strategy with your readers.
I tuck my pants legs into my socks and spray my shoes and socks with DEET insect repellent. I tuck my long-sleeved shirt into my gloves and spray up to my elbows.
As soon as I go inside I throw my clothes into the laundry and wash with hot water and immediately take a hot, soapy shower. If I get a bite anyway, I quickly apply a strong anti-itch steroid gel my dermatologist prescribed. It helps prevent blistering.
Where Do Chiggers Hang Out?
Because these mites are so tiny, you will rarely know when they have climbed on board your body. They hang out on grass and bushes and wait for an unsuspecting victim to brush by.
Although many people believe they burrow under the skin and lay eggs, the dermatologists tell us that is not true. When they bite us, they leave behind a brew of digestive enzymes. Those enzymes provoke an allergic reaction in highly sensitive people. Others may not even realize they have been bitten because they are resistant to those digestive chemicals.
Chiggers can lurk almost anywhere. They frequently hang out in forests. If you go tromping through grasslands, you could easily pick up chiggers there as well. Orchards and berry bushes are prime territory for chiggers, which may be why they have been called harvest mites. Berry pickers often bring home an unwelcome harvest of bites. Just weeding in the backyard can be problematic.
Prevent Chigger Bites:
An insect repellent is often effective when sprayed on shoes, socks and pant legs. We often wear long white athletic socks and tuck pants legs into the socks. Then we liberally spray with DEET on the socks and shoes.
Powdered Sulfur to Prevent Chigger Bites:
If you prefer a more natural approach, you could try dusting shoes and socks with “flowers of sulfur” (aka sulfur powder). It can be found in hardware stores and some pharmacies.
Readers Share Their Ways to Prevent Chigger Bites:
Sarah in Charleston, SC, says Sulphur is ticket:
“A great way to prevent chigger bites is to pour “Flowers of Sulphur” in a sock and tie the top in a knot. Then (I stand in the shower) pat your feet, legs, and up to your waist, or as far as you want to go. Do this before dressing. My husband and I found that this worked every time if we were consistent about using it before going out in the yard.”
We’re not sure we would want sulfur powder up and down our legs, so we tend to keep it on our socks and work clothes.
Wayne in Indiana agrees that sulfur works:
“When I was growing up in Indianapolis, there was a very intense chigger infestation at my wooded yard and my grandparent’s farm which was also mostly wooded. I can say from first-hand experience that powdered sulfur is very effective at keeping the chiggers off.”
Nancy in Florida adds her mid-western experience to the mix:
“As a child In Ohio I remember my parents putting yellow sulfur powder (also known as flowers of sulfur) in a large salt shaker and shaking the powder on areas of clothing that might come in contact with vegetation. It was an effective deterrent.”
One woman shared this story:
“When I was a young woman and took my girls to Girl Scout camp, I would use yellow sulfur powder in a sock, and dust the girls and my shoes and pants legs after dressing. We were in the woods, the fields, and picking berries. The sulfur kept the chiggers away.”
Rubber Boots to the Rescue:
Edythe in Florida has a simple way to prevent chigger bites:
“Wear calf high rubber boots. Chiggers climb up your leg. They don’t drop on you. The rubber boots keep them off you. You do not need pesticides. You can spray the outside of the boots for double protection.
“I live and work on a farm. I also really react to their bites. You can’t wash them off. When you come inside, peel your pants off and use a washcloth to wipe off your legs. You can’t see chiggers. They need to be wiped off right away.
“Be careful not to put the same pants back on as I have experienced leaving work pants in the mud room then putting them back on to work and immediately getting bit. They apparently survive well on our clothing.”
Rubbing the body with a rough towel as soon as you come in from the yard and then showering is also helpful. Even though Edythe says you can’t wash them off, we have found a quick shower to be helpful as an added precaution.
Wash Those Chigger Critters Away:
A biologist in Live Oak, South Carolina agrees that washing can be helpful:
“I have spent many years as a field biologist in the southeastern US and make the following suggestions about preventing chigger bites.
“If you know that you have been out in chigger habitat (May to October in coastal SC) and have not applied preventative measures, take the following steps to prevent chiggers from attaching to skin:
- Before sitting down in a favorite chair, wash all field clothes including socks and underwear in washing machine with warm water and soap. This procedure will remove chiggers from clothes.
- Shower with soap and scrub with wash cloth (especially legs, groin and waist band areas) to prevent attachment or to remove recently attached mites.”