About Tick and Chigger Bites
Ticks and chiggers are biting parasitic creatures that can cause disease (in the case of ticks) or a strong allergic reaction (in the case of chigger mites).
Ticks probably exceed all other pests in the variety of diseases they transmit to humans and domestic animals. Tiny, wingless, louselike creatures, they range in color from brown to gray and from one-sixteenth to one-quarter inch in length.
Many tick species are known to carry diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Colorado tick fever, tularemia, babesiosis, and Lyme disease, which they can spread by feeding off the blood of their hosts. They occur in every part of the United States, though large numbers are concentrated in certain areas.
Chigger mites hatch in April in the northern United States (year-round in warmer climes). They do not, as ticks do, feed off blood, nor do they spread disease. But the enzymes they secrete can cause an allergic reaction resulting in two weeks or more of intense itching—which leads to scratching that may result in serious bacterial infection.
Signs of Tick and Chigger Bites
A tick bite produces a slight stinging sensation, but is relatively painless. The tick is also visible in the skin, though because it is tiny (about the size of a pinhead), it is often overlooked.
If you become infected with a tickborne illness, various symptoms can develop, depending on the specific infection. Flulike symptoms (chills, fever, muscle pain) characterize some of these diseases, including Lyme disease. Fever, headache, and a tell-tale rash are characteristic of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Tularemia produces a red bump at the site of the bite and swollen lymph nodes near the bite. Following a tick bite, therefore, you need to be on the alert for any developing symptoms.
Chigger bites can produce a red rash with intense itching; chiggers may be visible in the center of unscratched bumps as small red dots. Hives, blisters, and swelling may also occur.
Where Tick and Chigger Bites Occur
People usually pick up ticks and chiggers from woodsy underbrush, tall grass, and the fur of free-ranging pets.
The tick brushes against some part of the body and looks for a place to settle. It then bites the skin, embeds its head, and taps into a blood source, such as a small vein or capillary. As it feeds, the external part of its body swells to as much as three times its original size. The bite is relatively painless; the real danger is the viruses or bacteria that the tick may harbor and that may infect you.
Chigger mite larvae climb the nearest plant and wait for a bird, snake, small animal, or human to brush by. The mite drops off the plant and attaches itself with a pair of jawlike claws. It does not burrow, like a tick, but clings for about three days before dropping off. During that time it feeds by secreting enzymes that liquefy skin cells; these enzymes cause the initial symptoms of redness and itching.
How to Remove a Tick
Grip the tick with a pair of tweezers as close to your skin as possible and gently pull it straight out until it releases its hold. Don’t twist it as you pull, and don’t squeeze its bloated body—that may actually inject organisms into your skin. (If you spend much time hiking or gardening in overgrown areas, a pair of tick tweezers—available at many sporting goods stores—should be part of your first aid kit.)
Afterward, thoroughly wash your hands and the bite area with soap and water and apply antiseptic (such as rubbing alcohol). If you must touch the tick, cover your fingers with tissue; then wash your hands thoroughly.
Home remedies for tick removal—gasoline, petroleum jelly, kerosene, nail polish remover, or a hot match—have not been shown to be effective and may actually increase your chance of becoming infected from the creature. These methods may cause the tick to respond by secreting more of the infecting toxins.
Save the tick in a tightly covered small container or jar (add a little alcohol). Label the jar with the date, the body location of the tick bite, and where you think the tick came from. You can show the tick to your doctor if necessary.
Immediate Care for Tick and Chigger Bites
- Remove the tick immediately. The sooner a tick is removed, the smaller the likelihood any infectious organisms will be transferred. Don’t try to detach a tick with your bare fingers; organisms from a crushed tick may be able to penetrate even unbroken skin. Instead, use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers. If you cannot get the tick out, call a doctor.
- Wash the bite area. Use soap and water.
- Relieve the discomfort. An ice pack as well as calamine lotion will relieve any pain or itching.
- Watch for symptoms. In the days after a tick bite, be alert for symptoms of tickborne illness. Contact your doctor immediately if any develop.
- Remove the mite. If a chigger mite attaches itself to you—it will look like a tiny red fleck—a needle, small knife, or even your fingernail will remove it.
- Try starch baths and calamine lotion. These two remedies can help relieve the persistent itch from chigger bites.
- Don’t scratch. Chigger bites will cause an aggravating itch that can persist for weeks; constantly scratching the itch can lead to a bacterial infection.
Prevention Tips for Tick and Chigger Bites
The best treatment for chiggers and especially ticks is to ward them off. Take these precautions.
- Dress protectively. If you’re hiking through grass or underbrush, fend off chigger mites and ticks by wearing a long-sleeved shirt secured at the wrist, waist, and throat; tuck your pants into your socks or boots. Cover your body as much as possible.
- Wear light-colored, tightly woven fabrics: it’s easier to spot ticks on white or tan slacks than on dark ones, and the ticks may not be able to grab onto the tight weave of slippery materials such as nylon. A hat may help, too, since ticks like to settle on the scalp.
- Use insect repellent. One of the best ways to ward off chiggers and ticks is to use an insect repellent containing DEET. Be sure to follow label directions. Also available are tick repellents that contain permethrin. Permethrin is applied to clothes before you put them on. The repellent must not be applied to your skin. Spray applications are effective for up to two weeks, even after laundering.
- Check yourself and your family members. Inspect your skin and clothing occasionally for ticks, especially when you're in underbrush or forests. Ticks often crawl around on clothing or even on the skin for a long time before they bite. Later do a thorough check of your entire body. Have someone look at your back and head, if possible, or use two mirrors.
- Try to stay near the center of trails. In overgrown countryside, walking in cleared areas reduces your risk.
- Shower and shampoo after your outing. This may help remove ticks and chiggers that haven’t yet begun to feed. Check your clothes too; wash them immediately to remove any ticks that may be hidden in creases. Inspect any gear you were carrying.
- Check pets after they’ve been outdoors. Remove ticks from them as you would from yourself.
- Check children daily for ticks, perhaps before they go to bed. This is especially important during the summer, when they spend lots of time outdoors.
When to Seek Medical Attention
Call your doctor immediately if you notice symptoms that may be related to a tick bite. These can include fever, headache, muscle aches and pains, muscle weakness, rashes, and severe fatigue. Bring the tick with you in a container if you have it.
Also call a doctor if symptoms from a chigger bite become severe or if you develop a secondary infection from scratching.
Antibiotics are usually prescribed to treat the early stages of a tickborne disease. For severe reactions to chigger bites, lindane and crotamiton (a prescription drug) kill mites; crotamiton also alleviates itching.
For more serious attacks your doctor may prescribe an oral antihistamine or topical steroid cream to control the itching. If you do develop a secondary infection, an antibiotic may be needed.
For More Information about Tick and Chigger Bites
- American Lyme Disease Foundation
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media