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Tips to avoid chiggers

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

Sideline itchy chigger bites

Summertime is high season for bug bites and itchy rashes. Chiggers, also called harvest mites and red bugs, are particularly small arachnids that leave an annoying rash that can easily become infected. Despite chigger lore, chiggers do not carry diseases nor do they burrow under the skin. In fact, according to research entomologist Ludek Zurek, mistaken notions on these pesky little six-legged mite larvae can actually make chigger-related problems worse. Here is the itchy truth about common chigger myths and tips to avoid and treat chigger bites.

Chigger

Chiggers are not disease-ridden

Ludek Zurek, research entomologist with Kansas State University Research and Extension, says mosquitoes and ticks can transmit disease but chiggers have never vectored a human disease in North America. However, chigger bites can become infected.

"Chiggers simply use their piercing mouthparts to inject their host with a kind of spit. Their digestive juices are able to turn skin cells´ content into chigger food," explains Zurek. "In humans, the digestive enzymes also produce an allergic reaction -- an itchy, red bump or welt. So, humans´ biggest danger usually is that chigger bites can get infected secondarily by bacteria or fungi if you give in to temptation and scratch."

Chiggers do not embed themselves in your skin

The notion that chiggers burrow into the skin has given rise to "treating" bites with clear nail polish or washing a rash with harsh chemicals, such as bleach, to suffocate the bugs.

"Chiggers can't burrow," says Zurek. "If left undisturbed, they´ll keep eating for several days. Even when attached, however, they´re easy to brush off -- especially when taking a warm, soapy shower." The best treatment for chigger bites is a combination sealant-antihistamine such as Caladryl. Zurek also recommends applying petroleum jelly or baby oil on the bites to ease itching until you can get to the drugstore, if you don't have Caladryl on hand.

Chiggers are congregators

It's natural to assume that many bites or a rash is caused by one chigger biting several times. However, chiggers bite once. Chiggers, which are larvae of a type of mite, will die quickly if they are dislodged because they only have a one-use hypodermic ability at this stage. Multiple bites are typically due to a large group of chiggers.

Chiggers can be deterred through proper clothing

Tucking your pants in your socks or wearing a long-sleeved, buttoned up shirt doesn't make you immune to chigger bites. "That will slow the chiggers down, at least," says Zurek. "You´ll do better, though, if you´re wearing boots, your clothing is loose-fitting but tightly woven, and you have treated the clothing - as well as any exposed skin - with a good repellent. That kind of preparation is particularly important as far up your body as the height of the vegetation you´ll be walking through."

The entomologist recommends repellents containing diethyl-meta-toluamide or DEET (for skin and/or clothing) or permethrin (clothing only) and suggests users closely read and follow product instructions carefully for best results.

Chigger control isn't usually necessary

Unless you have a severe infestation of chiggers in your backyard or other frequently used outdoor area, Zurek suggests that you don't apply a chemical chigger control. Products that kill chiggers can also kill bug-eating spiders. Additionally, chemical chigger controls are not a long-term solution.

"Greener" and longer-lasting preventive steps can include:

  • Cut the lawn at its lowest (shortest) recommended height, so sunlight can reach the ground.
  • Decrease suitable chigger habitats by weeding and removing piles and debris that can harbor the small animals that also serve as chigger hosts.
  • Prune trees and shrubs to allow in more sunlight and moving air.
  • Provide walkways and other entertainment areas that have no turf or other plants.

Chiggers aren't actually insects

Chiggers are often thought to be microscopic insects that make your skin crawl. According to Zurek, chiggers are mites, which means they are related to spiders, ticks and scorpions – the group of creepy crawlies known as arachnids. "The chigger larvae that feed on people´s skin do have six legs, as insects do," Zurek explains. "But, the adult mites, which have no interest in people, have the typical eight legs of an arachnid."

Chiggers are tiny and hard to see, but can be identified by a tiny red dot scurrying across your skin or hanging on to a bite like a dark little speck. "People typically don´t feel chiggers, even when the mites insert their mouthparts," says the entomologist. "Humans´ first clue that chiggers are around usually comes six to eight hours later, when the bites finally start to itch."

Chigger bites and mosquito bites are similar but different

Though the two different bites do resemble each other, Zurek says there are tell-tell signs, the itchy bite you have is a chigger: A chigger bite always itches for several days – the minimum time the host´s body requires to repair its skin tissue damage and to neutralize or dissolve what the chigger left behind. During that time, liquefied skin cells will still ooze out every time the bite gets scratched. When exposed to air, however, this oozy fluid will soon solidify into a hard "cap" -- a distinct feature of chigger-caused feeding wounds.

Chiggers like hot, sweaty places

Chiggers seem to know the most annoying places to bite. According to Zurek, chiggers often roam, looking for a pore, hair follicle or other eating spot where the host´s skin is fairly thin. They prefer hot, sweaty places, but are perfectly willing to stop if their search takes them up to a barrier. That´s why chigger bites commonly show up on the back of knees, in crotch and armpits, at shoe and sock tops, inside tight-fitting underwear, and under a waistband or belt.

Chiggers can be spread

Zurek says the myth that people can be infested with and spread roaming chiggers actually has some basis in truth. Chiggers can´t establish infestations indoors. But, people can bring roaming chiggers inside on clothing and forget to put that clothing immediately into the washer with soap and hot water. Any chiggers that haven't latched on to a host will continue to roam for one.

More ways to get summer pests to bug off

Information adapted from story written by Kathleen W Ward of K-State Research and Extension. K-State Research and Extensions is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus in Manhattan.

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