The People's Perspective on Medicine

Unorthodox Home Remedies Ward Off Chiggers or Ease the Itch of Their Bites

Young woman is scratching herself on arm

Chiggers are the bane of berry pickers, hikers, gardeners and farmers. These tiny, almost invisible mites hang out in grasslands, forests, parks and around berry bushes. They have been called red bugs, berry bugs and harvest mites as well as chiggers (Trombiculidae).

Misconceptions About Chiggers:

Chiggers are best known for the intense itching their bites trigger. There are a lot of misconceptions about the itch. Boy Scouts used to believe that the larvae would burrow under the skin and the only way to get rid of them was to suffocate them with clear nail polish.

Dermatologists discount this as an urban legend. Chiggers do not burrow under the skin or even bite. Instead they slurp up skin cells, leaving behind digestive enzymes that can cause an intense allergic reaction that is unbearably itchy. Treatment with powerful prescription corticosteroid gels counteract this immune response.

Preventing Chigger Bites:

Doctors recommend spraying shoes, socks, pants and legs with DEET for prevention before venturing into grassy or wooded areas inhabited by chiggers. If you object to using DEET, try picaridin. Sawyer Picaridin is good at repelling ticks, according to Consumer Reports; it may also work against chiggers. Tuck the pants legs into the socks and make sure repellent is applied to cuffs, collars and waistbands where chiggers are especially attracted.

According to the University of Minnesota extension service, it is prudent to take a bath with thick soap lather as soon as you leave a chigger-infested area. If you have welts resulting from chigger bites, apply an antiseptic after the bath to prevent infection.

Home Remedies for Avoiding Chiggers:

Readers of this column have other suggestions. One reader describes a favorite old-fashioned technique for avoiding chiggers:

“Flower of sulfur is a powder available in drugstores. Pour some in an old sock, knot it and pat it liberally on feet, ankles, legs, waist and arms. A neighbor told us about this when he invited my husband to play golf right after we moved to Georgia.”

Powdered sulfur is not always easy to find. If it is not available, try Chigg Away, a liquid that contains sulfur.

Another reader has a homemade repellent recipe:

“I have problems with chiggers in my garden, and the itch from the bites drives me crazy. I made a mixture of amber Listerine, vanilla extract and oil of orange and sprayed it on my body. I took special care with my ankles, waistband on my underpants, bra and also my hair and neck. It was very effective, though I 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.”

Relief from Itchy Chigger Bites:

Finding relief from chigger bites is a challenge all its own. One reader reported:

“I got four bites behind my knees while working in my flower bed two days ago. I have been miserable the last 48 hours.

“I read about heat for the itching and have just tried both the warm compress and hair drier. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for the relief. I’ve been using a steroid cream that provided no respite whatsoever. I will be using heat to soothe the itch from henceforward.”

Some of the remedies readers have recommended are downright strange, not to say messy:

“After years of suffering from chigger bites, I tried plain wet mustard straight from the fridge. I spread about 1/2 teaspoon on a bandage and applied it to the bite. This got rid of the itch so much faster than the hydrocortisone and Benadryl I was using before.”

Readers have also found that soaking in a bathtub with lukewarm water and Epsom salts or baking soda can soothe that maddening itch. Others apply Sea Breeze Fresh-Clean Astringent, mouthwash or even toothpaste. We have heard that Capzasin cream can take away the itch, though presumably it stings a bit at first. Most readers agree that avoiding bites if possible is preferable to treating them.

Revised 5/30/16

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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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    I have had intense itching from chiggers all up my leg. I tried the nail polish trick, and it didn’t work. I tried calamine lotion. No go. Eager to rid myself of this nuisance, I made a paste with Vick’s vapo rub, table salt, a drop of spearmint oil, and a drop of tea tree oil. I also took a half of Benadryl before bed. I applied it to the raised bumps. NO ITCHING!!!!! YAY I can sleep now and not scratch my leg. On the way to healing! Now to come up with a bug spray!!! 😁

    YES I have the answer! JUST STAY OUT OF THE WOODS!

    I don’t know why more people don’t suggest this, but this is what actually works for the bites. : make a paste of meat tenderizer and rub it in (Wash you hands off afterwards.)

    Repeat a few times over the next day.

    You can add a drop of tea tree oil, a drop of dish detergent and a pinch of cayenne pepper to the paste. (Antiseptic, surfactant and pain reliever!) Or just use the meat tenderizer paste.

    The active ingredient (derived papaya or pineapple) breaks down the substance that the chigger has injected into your skin to soften it for eating. That chigger spit has created a hard little tunnel in your epidermis that is causing the tremendous itching

    About 95% of the itching will go away (for good,) although the bite will still be visible for the usual 10 or so days that it would have lasted without the remedy.

    I have used Vicks mixed with SALT on the terrible itching, when I am going to bed. It stops the itching, but in the morning, the Vicks has dried and the salt is on your sheets. So it means, you will need to wash the sheets, but it does work for me. It would include the menthol that someone mentioned.

    Good old fashion calamine lotion (the pink kind seems to work better than the clear). Take a hot shower, towel dry, stand in the tub and apply the lotion liberally. It takes a few minutes to completely dry. It will make your sheets feel chalky, so you’ll want to wash them every day. This treatment lets me sleep through the night.

    Attended a picnic at my brother in his garage. Lives in a low area near a lake and swamps. The next day the bumps started up. Figured it was chiggers and tried alcohol rub. Did not work. Took a long hot bath and scrubbed skin. Also, used Bath & Body Works lotion with shea butter and Vitamin E. Took Benadryl. Itch much relieved. Kept using Benadryl and lotion as needed and bumps gradually disappeared in several days.

    Tried all the remedies, some took the edge off but didn’t stop the itch completely.
    Here’s what did:
    Soaked my legs in water as hot as I could stand it.
    Sprayed my legs with maximum strength Cloraseptic throat spray until they are dripping. Then applied maximum strength oragel liberally and then scratched every bump until they stop itching completely. One more spray with the Chloraseptic and quickly wrapped my legs with Saran Wrap before it could dry, put on tube socks to hold the Saran Wrap in place.
    Lasted for hours and was able to sleep with NO itching whatsoever. Did this morning and night until I didn’t need it.
    Hope this helps.

    I was desperate. Rubbed a vetinary linament and used heat from a hair dryer off one spot to another, then back again. I think the hot hair drier worked best.

    In Virginia, and in the summer months, only I seem to get chigger bites between 4-7pm. Am I just imagining this or they do have a daily schedule?

    This is not helping I already have them so forget about prevention! Got them in Costa Rica 4 months ago how much longer will they last cause nothing works? Scratching also relieves the itch also.

    We have lots of chiggers in Missouri. I agree with the comments about doing prevention but if you get bites, use bleach. You can soak in a bleach bath or if they’re on your ankles, dip your feet and legs in warm bleach water for several minutes. The itch completely leaves.

    Very informative

    How much bleach in the bath water?

    I wrote the first article about Flowers of Sulfur–and it’s wonderful! You can also buy OTC “pens” to stop the itch, which I did. Turned out it just contained ammonia–so after that, I just used some ammonia if needed (rarely) but much less expensive!

    Witch Hazel works for me. I pour small amount into hand and rub it onto itchy skin or squirt directly on skin and rub to spread it around.
    Works quickly.

    I take a bath using Cat flea shampoo. Be sure that you are not sensitive to it first. Lice shampoo for kids might work.

    Chigger “bites” make me miserable and the most effective prevention I have found is a layer of baby oil around my ankles, behind my knees, around my waist and neck, then a dusting with sulphur powder in a sock around pant legs, boots etc. For some reason, they cant seem to get to my skin with the oil on it. I also keep a towel in the garage, take my clothes off and vigorously rub down with the towel, then take a soapy shower. And lastly, I apply sulfur granules to my lawn each year. It does take some effort but its worth it!! You can get sulphur powder and granules at any garden center.

    We used to get Chiggar bitesregularly when walking around in The Hill Country of Texas. Then we started applying Skin So Soft by Avon and we stopped getting “any” bites. One small drawback was other travelers mentioning our new smell. However, not getting those terrible itchy bites far out weighed being accused of having a delicate aroma.

    Skin So Soft has one version that contains an insect repellent, IR 3535. Good to know it works against chiggers.

    Microwave water and make it pretty hot and put a spoon in the water for 10 seconds or so. Put it on the bites, it’s hot as heck but the itch goes away immediately.

    I seem to attract chiggers and they can make life difficult. After years of unsuccessful remedies I found what really works for me, a long hot bath. I think it opens the skin pores and releases the poison. Really hot, and as long as you can stand. Seems to last 1/2 day or more.

    I do alot of work in the country and came home one day with about fifty chigger bites on each foot it was so bad i was ready to cut my feet off to get relief. Some one told me that soaking your feet in vinegar and warm water would relieve the itch and get rid of them. It did help but the best thing i have found to help is to rub any product with high amounts of menthol relieves it completely within a day and the redness starts going away but you may have to apply more than once. Also if you know your in infested area take a sock and fill with cornstarch bat it on legs and feet they wont get on you i dont know why but they do not like cornstarch.

    To d k – did she spray this on before going into chigger territory or afterwards for relief from the bites? thanks!

    As gardeners and growers of berries we have experienced terrible encounters with chiggers. Literally hundreds of bites mostly in areas it’s very impolite to scratch! Miserable. So now we always de-chigger (as we call it) before going out to work with Avon skin so soft. All I can say is… it works! Thankfully the chiggers seem to go dormant once our hot, dry weather sets in. But until then, skin so soft is a true lifesaver.

    I found a suggestion on the web which helped my daughter. Fill a bottle half way with water, the other half with witch hazel. Then add 50 drops of LAVENDER essential oil. Spray it on; use a spray bottle. She said it worked for her.

    mustard over the body? why not try vinegar? Mustard has vinegar. Someone told me that eating grapes and grape juice might help.

    Eating Grapes and drinking grape juice? Wine has grapes. Why not just drink a bottle of wine? :D

    Prevention is best but these remedies are very helpful. A friend told my family years ago that if you put baby powder on your ankles before going out it would prevent chiggers from staying on your skin. And if you bathed when coming in from the outside you would not have a problem. It worked! Well,for most of us anyway. My brother did not put on clean socks after bathing and, of course, the chiggers found a clean home!

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