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How to Keep Chiggers from Biting

Digestive enzymes left in chigger bites can drive a person crazy with itching. What are the best ways to keep chiggers from biting?

Chiggers, also known as red bugs or berry bugs, are among the annoyances of summer. Unlike ticks or mosquitoes, they don’t usually carry deadly diseases, although we may have to revise that opinion soon. Chigger bites swell, redden and itch maddeningly. Can you keep chiggers from biting when you are outside?

Can Home Remedies Keep Chiggers from Biting?

Q. My garden is full of chiggers and the itch from the bites drives me crazy. I made a mixture of amber Listerine, oil of orange and vanilla extract and sprayed it on my body. I took special care to cover my ankles and bands around my underpants and bras. In addition, I sprayed my hair and neck.

I am happy to report it was very effective and smelled like bubble gum. I detected just one bite under my arm and will be more careful with that spot in the future. I hope this helps others who are bothered by those pesky critters.

A. Thank you for sharing your innovative preventive strategy. Many readers also suggest dusting socks and shoes with flowers of sulfur. This old-fashioned bug repellent can often be found in garden supply stores. Be careful not to inhale the powder, though. Take a shower when you come in from outside to scrub off any chiggers that may have escaped the sulfur deterrent.

How to Keep Chiggers from Biting:

Q. I am extremely susceptible to chigger bites. I never know where they are lurking.

I like to garden in my back yard and hike in the woods. A day or two later I am covered with bites that itch like crazy and then blister. They are ugly and take weeks to heal.

I have two questions. What can I do to prevent chiggers from biting me in the first place? If I get a bite, what can I do to control the itching and speed healing?

A. Chiggers (Trombiculidae) are tiny mites that climb on grasses and bushes waiting for unsuspecting prey to mosey by. Contrary to folklore, chiggers do not burrow under the skin but they do bite and afterwards they leave digestive enzymes behind. Some people like you are highly allergic to their enzymes and experience extreme itching, redness and swelling.

Keeping Chiggers Off Skin:

The best way to prevent chiggers from biting is never to venture outside without protection. Tuck long pants into the tops of socks and coat your shoes, socks and pants legs with a highly effective insect repellent. Consumer Reports rates Sawyer Picaridin highly against ticks, mosquitoes and other bugs. Another option is DEET (OFF! Deepwoods VIII or Ben’s 30 percent DEET Tick & Insect Wilderness Formula). Permethrin-containing products like Repel can be applied to clothing as well. Any of these repellents should be used according to instructions, of course.

Easing the Itch:

Once a bite appears, hot water may temporarily ease the itching, but a strong corticosteroid gel will offer longer-lasting relief. It will also reduce the inflammation. Your doctor would need to write you a prescription for that.

How Can You Keep Chiggers from Biting Your Skin?

Q. Chigger bites make me miserable. The most effective prevention I have found is a layer of baby oil around my ankles, behind my knees and around my waist and neck. Then I put sulfur powder in a sock and dust myself with it around my pants legs, socks and boots. For some reason, they can’t seem to get to my skin with the oil on it.

I also keep a towel in the garage, take my clothes off when I come in from outside and vigorously rub down with the towel before taking a soapy shower. And lastly, I apply sulfur granules to my lawn each year. It does take some effort but it’s worth it! You can get sulfur powder and granules at any garden center.

Finding Ways to Keep Chiggers from Biting:

A. Thanks for the tips. Chiggers are the larval stage of certain mites (family Trombiculidae). They hang out in tall grass and brush, waiting for an unsuspecting animal (maybe you) to happen by so they can grab a meal. This tactic might sound familiar, as it is also how ticks line up for a bite.

The best defense in both cases is to stay out of the undergrowth. That might not be practical, though. If you must venture into the woods and fields, wear long pants with the cuffs tucked into the tops of your socks. Your baby oil idea is interesting. We will try it ourselves soon.

Sulfur powder is a long-standing remedy to keep chiggers off the skin. (Another reader recommended it here.) Be careful not to inhale the powder when you apply it. It can irritate the lungs.

If you can’t find powdered sulfur, you may want to use bug repellent containing picaridin for additional protection. Consumer Reports has found that it works well against both chiggers and ticks.

Scrub Them Off!

The idea of rubbing the skin with a dry towel first and showering as soon as possible to wash off unattached or lightly attached chiggers is great. Lee Townsend and Mike Potter, extension entomologist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, agree.

Chiggers Carry Scrub Typhus:

In 2023, North Carolina scientists reported that they found evidence of the bacteria that causes scrub typhus in numerous chiggers captured in the wild (Emerging Infectious Diseases, Aug. 2023). The proportion of trombiculid larvae carrying the bacteria (Orientia species) varied from one location to another. At least some of them carried Orientia tsutsugamushi, which causes scrub typhus.

The investigators do not yet know if chiggers transmit this disease. The symptoms include fever and chills, headaches, sore muscles, enlarged lymph nodes, rash and mental changes, such as confusion. Scrub typhus can be serious or even deadly if left untreated, and most doctors are probably unaware that chiggers in the United States may be carrying it. Consequently, if you become ill after experiencing chigger bites, you should mention this possibility to the physician.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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