Bug bites: The lowdown on no-see-ums

Photo courtesy of CDC

Yes, Caroline, there are no-see-ums, and they do bite. These tiny flies — commonly known as sand flies — have a lot in common with mosquitos.

In body shape they look like a mosquito, says Paul Bartels, a professor of Invertebrate Biology at Warren Wilson College. Pointing to an enlarged photo, he explains that these insects fall under the classification Diptera — meaning they have two wings and are attached to a thorax.

They also have a needle-like sucker and a separate injector tube. Using the latter, these flies squirt a small amount of anticoagulant to keep the blood flowing. It is our body’s allergic reaction to this anticoagulant that produces the itch, which can linger for many days in some people.

You can actually see the no-see-ums, although they are very small — about the size of a sharp pencil point.  They can go straight through window screens but usually fly low and stay outdoors. There are many species, so individuals would have to be identified under a microscope. 

These, and mosquitos of course, are the usual culprits that sting exposed body parts of creatures that exhale carbon dioxide (including humans). The females seek out blood as a source of protein for their eggs. Males of these species do not bite humans.

Professor Bartels says no-see-ums like the backs of human legs because they are protected from the airflow created by walking, which can affect their flight. 

They live in the grass and low vegetation, especially around coastal areas. They must have constant moisture for their larva, and Asheville’s wet spring and summer has suited them to a tee.

The good news is that a commonly available lotion, Avon’s “Skin So Soft,” is an excellent repellent for no-see-ums. They are also repelled by insect repellants containing DEET, or more natural alternatives like Citronella. The best protection is long sleeves and long legs on pants (tightly cuffed) to prevent them from finding your skin. Wilderness fabrics are deliberately woven so tightly that even no-see-ums can’t penetrate them.

No-see-ums are grouped with gnats and midges because of their size and body form. There are thousands of species of these insects, but most of them don’t bite humans, although they can be quite annoying.

There are other critters that do bite humans, like chiggers, which are mites. The larval form of chiggers seek tight, protected spots between skin and clothing, to bite and inject its saliva, loaded with irritating enzymes.

Chiggers do not lay eggs in human skin (according urban legend) so painting the wound with nail polish will not protect you. The itch is long lasting because it takes time for the enzymes to fade.

Professor Bartels also cautions humans to protect their pets — dogs and cats especially — from ticks and fleas. These cause agony to pets, who can’t tell you what’s wrong, and these pests transmit several diseases. Lyme disease is tick-borne, infects humans and is lurking in the North Carolina woods. 

DeWitt Robbleloth is a freelance writer.

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57 thoughts on “Bug bites: The lowdown on no-see-ums

  1. veloris

    I am so glad I found this page, everyone thinks I am lost my mind, I encountered this bug from Arizona, I have been and still being ate up,i can not get any relief, they made a nest in my hair, I got all my hair cut off, I have used bleach ,bakeing soda, vinegar, tic and flea spray now,, I am in awe right now,cause I broug her ht them home o come up with somethingto my daughters home now her children keep getting bit,she wants me out her home, I need to find a solution to get them out her home.
    Thank You
    Miss Green

    • Mamie Gibson

      I have also been accused of imagining these pesty bugs. How do I get rid of them. Have had Rid X exterminator out twice, have set off bombs twice. Nothing seems to phase them. What can I use to rid my home of them. They really hurt when they bite and can wiggle their way thur clothing and bed covers. Please help.

      • Nancy M. Doyle

        I have been dealing with no-see-ums for 3 years now. The one thing I found was taking a bath with bleach and hydrogen peroxide. As I bathe I found that if I rub my skin they come out and I cannot believe how many are in my skin. So I find things they don’t like. Since learning that they lay 1000 eggs a day that is not so good odds in eliminating them. I use a facial steamer to rid them from my eyes and face and I use Biore Blemish Fighting Astringent on face they do not like. I found they don’t like the infrared lamp and I have infrared heating pad with jade stones when I sleep on to deter them. They do not like neem oil and castor oil which I make up a small amount and rub on my face especially around my eyes. I found they do not like calamine lotion with zinc oxide. I believe they do not like zinc oxide in the calamine. My nephew told me about a Beyer Advanced complete insect killer ready to spread granules you put on lawn. It is suppose to rain. So I want to put it down before it rains. I am not a fan of this because it is a poison. And I am at my wits end. To anyone in this space of these bugs my heart goes out to you. They are relentless if they like you.

        • SHEILA M HUGHES

          I’m going to try the Biore. I’ve suffered with these bites for years, all over my neck and face. Three dermatologist s haven’t been able to figure it out. I change my pillowcase e ery other day, and wash my pillows once a week. Nothing works. I also have very thick hair, which they like. I’m also diabetic, so maybe my “sweetness” attracts them. I see dermatologist number 4 in October.

    • Laurie

      I visited Florida twice last year (2014), one in May and then again in late October. The first visit was near Tampa and I got over 100 noseeum bites on my body. They lasted 2-3 weeks and I was miserable for that entire time. The second visit was to S Florida and I got about 75 bites that time but some of them never went away. Six month later I still have a dozen or so and they still itch! I live in northern California, not on the coast, and I’ve never experienced anything like this before. When in Florida I tried 2 different DEET products and Avon’s Skin So Soft and nothing worked. I’m afraid to visit there again, or anywhere else that is warm and coastal. Lately I’ve noticed some new bites on me and wondering if I brought some of these pests home with me but I don’t see how they would have made it through the winter here (although we had an unusually warm winter).

      • Brad Bergsma

        They survive winter here in canada, so they can survive down there..
        Enjoy them, they are a treat…
        May i suggest your next visit to florida be later in the summer season…
        Most biting bugs tearly cycle jas passed by then, or at the very least, there numbers reduced..

    • Anne

      Use Enforcer brand flea powder from the pet section at Walmart to get rid of no see ums. I lived in FL for years. Don’t leave your windows open and stay out of the grass. enforcer flea powder on the carpets will get rid of them. just leave it down for an hour. In 24 hrs your house will be clear. Flowery smelling shampoos are not a good idea if you are sensitive to their bites. They hate hair products like mousse and hair spray so you should be able to avoid getting them in your hair if you use them

      • Brigitte

        I live in nirthern new york on the Canadian Border and have them on my floors in my house. They bite as I walk around

    • Corrina

      I’ve found that they don’t like lavender oil. I’ve had a problem with these indoor pests for over one year, so I’m experimenting with different things. I put a couple of tablespoons of baking soda, followed by 1 cup of white vinegar in all of my drains, because I’ve heard that they lay eggs in the drains. Avon Skin So Soft has an oil that contains a repellant. Regular Skin So Soft hasn’t worked for me.

      • R GERRY MYERS

        Yes, these things always attack me in my face while I’m standing at the sink. I’m so sure they are coming from my drains! I’ve tried flushing bleach water down the drain but it only helps temporarily. I don’t know where they originally came from but about 6 mo ago my cat started acting very erratic and scratching very wildly. My vet charged me over $200 to tell me the cat did NOT have fleas and they had NO answers! Within 2 months my cat was dead! I’ve tried using mentholated powders and Vicks Vapo Rub. They seem to be the only thing that give me some relief, at least temporarily. I’ve never been able to see one. Not even with a magnifying glass. So frustrating!!

        • corrina

          I’m very sorry to hear about your cat. I get some very itchy and painful bites. My cats are occasionally bothered, while I’m almost always bothered. In order to get any sleep at all, I run the a/c quite cold, and keep the fans running. I cover up with two sheets–they bite through if I just do one. I use VICKS on my face, and spray one of my many repellents on the top of my head. I wash my bedding every other day, and throw it in the clothes dryer when I don’t launder it. I never wear my night clothes more than one night. I keep my waste cans covered and dump them frequently. I have lemon slices around the house. I made the vinegar and dish soap traps and have set them out. I never find anything in them. I clean all of my drains with white vinegar and baking soda. I have plug in devices that attract and electrocute bugs. I keep my house clean and don’t leave dirty laundry around. I have a rock garden full of plants that repel blood sucking bugs. This is just a portion of what I’ve tried, and I’m still trying. Very frustrating.

  2. Help!

    I have similar things in my back yard and I can’t figure out what they are. They are biting both myself and my dogs, and they are absolutely tiny! They look almost clear ( like beige clear exoskeletons) but they don’t look like mosquitos like the way you describe the “no see ums”. They are so tiny that by the time I actually trap one with my finger I have smashed it, and can’t decipher the bits under a microscope. They are about 1mm long or less and probably half that wide and they don’t seem like they can fly, but on that scale I can’t really tell what is going on. Are there no see ums that can’t fly? If I sit in the grass for too long I am absolutely covered. If anyone knows what these are or if these could potentially be “no see ums”. My boyfriend thought i was just having an allergic reaction to the grass but NO! Its something like these things! Hate them! – Austin, Tx

    • Lisa

      If you are sitting in the grass that sounds more like chiggers look them up

      • Help

        Definitely not chiggers. I grew up in the south east and have known what those look like my entire life.

    • Pamala

      I am also from Austin Texas and we get eaten alive by them every spring and summer. The only thing that we have found that helps is to re-pallet with DEET in it. And keeping our grass cut as short as possible. Also, Make sure you don’t have any standing water around your property.

    • Jeff

      Read or look up about a insect called Thripe. It could be the pest you are talking about.

  3. PJ

    Just moved to Virginia from Denver last summer. Last year it was mosquitoes. This year it’s mosquitoes plus all manner of bugs. Tics gave my dog lymes disease and now there are probably five or six insects that have infested our house, our daughters house and our car. Wish I’d never moved!
    Some are tiny black dots (hundreds of them) that get in beds and on floors and furniture. They must bite because we are miserable and scratch all the time.
    Others look like fine pieces of lint. Others are hard like little wood chips (white) that cut and are abrasive. Others are like little red mites. And still others are like grains of salt.
    We are all going nuts. The dogs cry and we have bloody scratches all over. What do you go for these? We can’t afford to have chemical sprays as I’ve had lupus and cancer. Any ideas?

    • C

      Reading your blog about no see um s and your story sounds all to famliar have you found out what these are or found a solution ?
      Any relief??

    • Michelle Morgan

      Dear PJ and others ,
      I live in central Illinois and even though this post is two years after the fact of your entry, I am experiencing the exact same thing . I have teeny tiny little pests in my home . They come in all shapes and sizes from teeny tiny little straight mites that look like teeny little black pieces of hair to tiny black, red and white specks. The longer Black and red hair like mites can go in and out of the fabric in my sheets and blankets. Did I mention whatever these little vectors are they bite & leave bumps. But they are definitely not bedbugs. Some of them flying seem to resemble the No Seeums. Regards to getting rid of them, they seem to be immune to everything I try from home bug foggers to daily cleaning to Windex & other insecticide spray‘s. The only thing that I have found that works to get rid of them is spraying 92% rubbing alcohol directly on them. I have heard that diamond tacious earth is good for your carpets however what do I do about those that are inside of my other couch ? Oh and for some reason only females in my household – me – are the ones that get bit or stung or whatever you wanna call it . My husband and sons don’t. I have been fighting this for five months and have gone so far as to employ Orkin pest control regional inspector. I’ve given him two samples and he supposedly shipped them off to his corporate lab where they cannot seem to identify what these things are. I hate them too!! I want to move so badly but I can’t . And then I’m afraid that if they’re actually on me I’ll take them with me wherever I go. They are in my car & my couch. They are in my clothing and bedding . They love to be close to the water source and my garbage can and are now living underneath my kitchen table. I saw a few that fly & I’m wondering if I have two different types of insects? For the ones that fly, they look like dust particles with a purpose. Please someone anyone give me some information that will help me get rid these insects . Whether there some type of mysterious mite that bites you in your bed and /or attacks you in your kitchen or other living areas in the home, they have got to go!

    • Buddy

      I think you need to check your air ducts. It’s possible your ducts have openings and some fiberglass insulation is leaking into the house. Fiberglass can hurt and cause itching. Also pray Psalm 91 our loud over your house and property that no evil shall come near your dwelling place.

    • corrina

      I’m told that the sprays don’t do any good, anyway. I share your frustration, believe me. Keep trying everything, like I am doing. Maybe you’ll get lucky. These bugs are from the Middle East, I’ve heard. They’ve been torturing our troops for years. I wonder if they’ve been coming home inside of luggage? If the military knows how to beat them, I wish they’d share what they know.

  4. anon y mous

    I went here with my bf who didn’t think he had bed bugs and was searching for any other possible answer b/c of looking for all the signs of them for months and never finding one. If you think you also don’t have bed bugs — unfortunately, you may have them and are being fooled by myths about them. Some myths that misled us: people think that you will find traces of them like droppings/blood, and people also think that you will get many bites. Both are often not true. You are going to be wondering for a year, getting bites all the while (and possibly spreading the bugs outside your home). I know this from experience of a boyfriend who spent months of online research, put down every type of trap on the market, and never found bed bugs, until about 4 months into it, he did find just one. He couldn’t find any others but continued to get bites – just one or two – every night. He got them taken care of. Don’t be fooled by the myths of how bed bugs are – just get your place examined by a professional company and proceed from there.

  5. Bonbon

    I had a houseplant that I sat outdoors on my deck for a week and when I brought it back inside, it was infested with noseeums. I used everything on the market to trap them or kill them (foggers — you name it!). Exterminators will not come to your home because they say they cannot kill flying insects. I turned my air conditioning down very low to try to freeze them out and it still did not work. This was in April of 2015. They tortured me and bit me all summer long. In the winter, I didn’t see them anymore and I thought they had died, but in April 2016, they were back again, biting me ferociously. I do not have any pets or houseplants and there is no water source for them inside or outside my home. You cannot locate a nest, because you cannot see them. Someone recommended spraying myself with citronella oil mixed with rubbing alcohol and ingesting 4 brewer’s yeast tablets per day. I was leery of this but willing to try anything. It took two weeks for the yeast to get into my system and now I am “bite free”. They do not like the taste of me since I am taking the yeast. I don’t know how this works, but it DOES WORK. I could not believe it — it’s like a miracle! The person who told me to do this says she gives the yeast to her pets too. Hope this post helps someone because I was so grateful someone told me about the yeast pills.

    • Russell

      Wow brewer’s yeast tabs something I have to try I could be in a place the size of Yankee Stadium if there’s one flea in there it’ll find me and yes most of these insects only bite certain people don’t know if it’s blood type or skin or what but I’m one of them I’ll have to Google where I can get these brewer’s yeast tabs and check it out tired of spraying and spraying and spraying……thanks

    • Angie S

      I haven’t found any yeast tablets. Any idea how much yeast powder is in a tablet?

    • Gail H

      What brand of Brewers Yeast and what size of tablets? It looks like brewers yeast helps with quite a few things! If it can take care of mosquitoes and no-see-ums, the plus would also be my diabetes (so I will make sure to check with my doctor about it). I am one of those people that when I go to a picnic all the bugs are attracted to me and leave everyone else alone. When I was young, our family took a trip through the Quetico up in Canada and we did daily black-fly bite counts on me – no one else had them :( This has been a lifelong problem with me – now that I’m 60, it would be really nice if we could find a solution for it :D

  6. Lolly Looter

    I had bites for over a year, my boyfriend thought I started cutting myself because they would not go away. I was so frustrated. I saw three different doctors all three said it was bed bug bites. I followed advice and still no change. I did some of my own detective work and found out it was no see ums. I tried a soap from aveno it’s a baby shampoo called intense cleanse with oatmeal. The oatmeal kills them
    I also used an oatmeal lotion I found at the dollar tree it works as well. I found the oatmeal extract in some Victoria secret lotions too. I also tried a shampoo at the 99 cent store called lice repel . I got rid of them finally.best of luck to you all

  7. Margot Sawyer

    I just came back from tge island of Grenada in the Caribbean where I was riddled by noseeum bites. We tried all tge different repellants and creams, none of which were a deterrent to these pests no helped relieve tge itching. I though after we came home that the welts would cease but I feel that more bites or marks keep emerging and am quite uncomfortable contuing the itching and scratching. How long after leaving island can tge bites keep coming?

    • Able Allen

      I’m no expert, so you may want to consult one, but that sounds like chiggers, or possibly bed bugs — not no-see-ums, the bites of which tend drive people nuts in the moment, but dissipate pretty quickly , in my experience.

    • Gina

      I believe they keep biting! It’s not Chiggers! The things are terrible!
      Everyone is telling their story, but there are NO SOLUTIONS???? Does anyone have a good remedy to getting them out of your yard and off your body!

  8. Ricki S

    The noseeums are back here in full force, not sure that they ever really went away :-) We use natural repellents and have tried many, even made our own out of desperation, but now have found a product created in the Virgin Islands and on sale all over the US, it works great is effective and safe on the kids: https://thesolidbarcompany.com/collections/travel-bug-bars . They’ve got an anti itch cream that works fine for when you forget the repellent or miss a bit, good info. Best of luck to all in keeping those miserable itches away!

  9. Mary

    I live in the woods of upstate NY. My bites were so bad I would wake up in the middle if the night, bleeding from scratching my skin. The Dr. Gave me cortisone pills and cream. the swelling went down and some of the itch. I was convinced I had bed bugs, however when I spent 45 minutes on the phone with terminex, he walked me through it (no charge) I wear a nylon jacket with a hood whenever I go out. One of the best suggestions I got was putting Dawn Dish washing liquid along the ledge closest to the bottom of my screen. You should see what I catch. They gravitate to the bottom of the screen, get suck on the Dawn (dead). I clean the ledges every couple of days, it really works but you have to do every windowsill in your house and remove the gunk when the dead one’s are stuck in there to make room for new one’s. I hope this helps you, it has worked wonders for me.

    • Sophia

      Hi Mary – do you put the Dawn detergent on the outside or inside of the screens? I assume it is outside, but my husband said inside.

  10. Nikki

    Please don’t buy the Avon product. Don’t support a company that does cruel animal testing to make profit. They used to be against animal testing and they reversed this decision so that they can sell to the Asian market that requires it, even though it is more expensive and less reliable. Avon sucks worse than these bugs!

    • Nameless one

      Before you comment

      The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

      • R Ebitz

        Prevention should be the first step before you cause drawing no-see-ums, bees, flies, etc. to share you and your drinks.

        Sprays and stuff work some what, however most bugs are attracted to open drink containers then to your body.

        Odor and smells seems to be the attraction for bothersome bugs, so by having any drink container completely covered helps by not advertising it. Ever run from a Bee or Wasp?

        A solid lid is a great way to reduce attracting things, no straws, no sippy lids. One that I found is made in the USA at Pittsburgh Pa works great, just Google drink container protector and you’ll find a bunch.

        I even use one at work to keep other peoples germs from my coffee mug. The web site is
        http://www.bugnot.us

  11. Mrs

    Every night for the last 3 nights I have been getting bit. So freaked out right now. This morning I did a deep clean and low and behold out crawls a no see um with wings, the problem is I’m worried is there more in my bedroom and my leg is on fire feels like their crawling all over my leg, are they? Do they live on us. I can’t sleep I’ve covered my legs and arms in antibiotics and skin so soft and organic bug spray put on socks and pants and tucked my pants into socks any other suggestions?

    • Able Allen

      That doesn’t sound like no-see-ums. I have never encountered them indoors for more than a few moments. They usually just fly around. You may be looking at some other kind of infestation. Bed bugs, perhaps? I hope you find a solution.

      • Michele

        Well I have not gotten bit again thank god but last night I killed a huge black spider, do you think it could be spiders ?

      • Corrina

        No, they move in and stay. I’ve been fighting mine for over one year.

        • Able Allen

          Indoors you say? Are you sure you aren’t dealing with a flea infestation or something like that?

          • Corrina

            These are definitely no see ums. They are flying insects. They are the worst during dawn and dusk. They tend to hang around in the kitchen, bathrooms, and one bedroom. They are never evident in the guest rooms, which are usually not used. They are never in my car.

      • corrina

        They live inside. What we like, they like. Mine have been in my house for over a year. I’ve tried scads of solutions, and haven’t won. There are hundreds of varieties of no see ums, I’ve heard.

    • corrina

      Calamine spray helps, but it burns wherever you have scratched, or have been bitten. Once it dries, the burning goes away. I wonder what we who are always bitten, have in common. I am an insulin dependent diabetic. I take blood thinners. Does anybody else use these medications? I have only been a bug magnet for the last couple of years. I had a house guest who had traveled from the Middle East about the time the bugs showed up. I’ve heard that our troops serving in the Middle East have been tormented by these nasty bugs, for years. I wonder if the bugs travel inside of luggage?

  12. Rachel M

    I have been using a solid repellent bar that you just rub on dry skin and it seems to be effective against no seeums and mosquitoes. Says it has 12 active ingredients and it smells pretty good too. We use it here in Florida and took it on a cruise in the Caribbean and it worked well there too. You do have to cover all your skin with it and re-apply every few hours but would rather that than DEET any day! Been using it on the kids too and glad to have something natural that stops them getting bit, as my younger one always gets them. Company is called The Solid Bar Company https://thesolidbarcompany.com/ it was free delivery too.

    • Ricki S

      👏 We use these products here in PR – in fact I wouldn’t let any other product near my kids these days – these are totally non-toxic, totally effective, totally eco, totally non chem, totally great……….. – need I say more – oh, and in case I forget – just after Irma passed through here these guys also donated a few thousand of their bars free to help out the distressed folks in their time of need – so they [these guys: https://thesolidbarcompany.com/ ] totally (yes I use that word a lot!) get my vote 👏👏👏

  13. Kitbag

    To get rid of them all, get a coffee grinder, go to grocery store buy FENNEL SEED, it is a food item, wholly safe for pets amd people…
    Ground the fennel into a powder and sprinkle everywhere, it will smell like licourish.
    Feed it to pets and once in blood stream fleas and ticks don’t like taste and will move on and away..
    It is an ingredient in all cake mixes etc..
    Was used by farmers for thousands of years, until the flea companies told them to pay..
    Some barns still have the little yellow flowers growing around the barns, to keep fleas and ticks away..
    All bugs dislike fennel, with the only exception I have found to be Cockroaches.
    Also olive oil will help relieve the bites and itchiness for some folks.
    Gargling olive oil masks the exhale and makes you invisible to those types of bugs, for a short time.
    These are just very old solutions, and they are better than deet.
    Stay Safe
    Kitbag
    http://Www.viler.biz

  14. Angee

    So glad I found this page; it just helped to solve a mystery I’ve been struggling to solve. I’ve been getting these huge bites and couldn’t find the culprit, until tonight. I watched as what looked like a mini mosquito land on my arm. I felt none of the usual stinging associated with a mosquito; it seemed to just stand still on my skin. After 5 seconds I whacked it and, sure enough, it had bitten me and eventually a small, itchy bite appeared where it had been standing. I appreciate the links, above, for some more natural remedies for these hungry little things!

  15. Paula Perry

    They love me! No one around me gets bit, but the eat me up. Nothing helps the itching – it drives me insane.

  16. Teresa

    Can you help me solve a problem with Wasp (I believe mud dobbers). I have had hard mud built nest outdoors for many years. I have been able to eliminate all of the outdoor hives. However, now I have wasp in y house everyday it is above 55-60 degrees outdoors. I will have to kill between 10-15 everyday and they don’t like to die- you can smash them, spray them sweep them up and put outside and within a few monemts several will fly away its amazing.. anyway I have no idea how they are getting into the house.. the windows and window seams are solid- triple pane, the doors shut very well, I do not see anyway they can come through the wall. Is it possible they have a hive in the chimney or in my indoor plants.. I have never seen any come out of the fireplace or out of a plant.. I am baffled. I have two dogs in the house when I am not there and I’m very afraid they may get stung. Can you offer any assistance

  17. Gina

    After ready ALL of these posts, I have come to the conclusion there is NOTHING that for sure works other then being one of the lucky people they don’t like to bite! Ugggh! DOES ANYONE HAVE A FOR SURE REMEDY TO STOP THEM? AND HOW TO RID THEM FROM MY YARD! Errrr
    Thanks…..

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