Forget the nail polish, put away the peroxide, leave the liniment in the medicine cabinet.
Here’s the true story of a summer scourge and what you can do about it.
I scratched my first chigger bites while photographing rock climbers in the New River Gorge.
And I renewed the association regularly over the ensuing years in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Louisiana.
The chigger doesn’t seem to bother everybody, but for those who have suffered from the woodland pest, the question is this:
What can you do about them?
I’ve been advised to use everything from kerosene to liniment, hot sauce to turpentine, but none of these worked.
During the past 20 years, I have run into more and more people who parroted the old mythology every time they scratched a chigger welt. The myths about chiggers are so widespread that my curiosity was awakened.
What was the “bug” that reportedly burrowed under my skin, drank my blood, and could best be dispatched by putting a dab of nail polish or peroxide on the welt?
My research led me to various authorities and scholars, many of whom cited several errors in my perceptions about chiggers.
I found out, for example, that chiggers, also known as redbugs, are not insects, per se. Rather, they are a larval stage of a mite. The larva of these six-legged creatures gorge on tissue fluid, and the chigger’s saliva can cause an allergic reaction and angry welts on the skin.
Unlike various tick species, chiggers are not known to carry diseases.
I also learned that the chigger doesn’t burrow under your skin, and it doesn’t drink your blood.
And I learned that the itch from a chigger bite comes not directly from the creature itself as much as from a kind of tube or drinking straw.
The itch is developed at least in part by your skin in reaction to chigger saliva, and to the straw through which the chigger sucks up skin cells to eat.
That tube stays long after the chigger has departed. Your skin continues to react against it, itching in the process, and that will go on until the tube is finally absorbed by your body a week or 10 days later.
What’s even more puzzling is the chigger’s biological data.
Mites may well be the most numerous forms of arthropod life on Earth. Many species perform seemingly Herculean labors of tremendous service, as in breaking down field and forest fodder and litter and converting it into soil.
Others are serious pests.
The troublemaker we call a chigger is only one stage in an astonishing succession of metamorphoses, which ultimately result in an adult mite.
The stage most interesting to us is when the larva, or chigger, seeks to engorge itself on a host, presumably you and me. It is usually red, so small as to be virtually invisible to the naked eye and equipped with a pair of piercing jaws.
It lurks on grass stems, leaves, shrubbery, and usually thrives in dry sunny spots on woods’ edges where host animals are most likely to be found.
The larva latches on to any suitable passing host, and searches, at a surprising rate of speed for one so small, for a good spot to begin its remorseless assault.
As anyone who has encountered the pests will certainly tell you, a chigger’s favorite strategy is to focus on the belt line or in the groin, back of the knees, or an armpit.
It penetrates through the outer layer of skin and injects a salivary secretion into the opening.
The saliva contains powerful enzymes, which break down the skin cells, and these cells become a large part of the chigger’s food. If it is undisturbed, the chigger continues injecting saliva into the hole and sucking up tissue fluid and the contents of damaged skin cells (not blood) until it is fully fed.
An undisturbed chigger will become engorged in four days, but some authorities estimate the survival time of an unfed chigger from 14 to 30 days.
Now that we have accumulated this information about the life history of chiggers, what can you and I do to protect ourselves against them?
“Stay on asphalt and concrete,” advises a Beckley dermatologist. “Stick to roads and trails. Don’t touch anything that’s green.”
The skin specialist adds, “Your first line of defense is to wear protective clothing. Tightly woven socks and garments, long pants, long sleeved shirts and high shoes or boots are ideal. Change clothes as soon as possible when you get home and wash them before wearing them again.
“The next best protection against chigger bites is a warm soapy shower/bath soon after exposure. Choose a soap with an antibacterial agent, such as Dial Plus or Lever 2000.”
The dermatologist also explains that no substance is completely effective in relieving the itch of a chigger bite, although there are many products available. Over the counter antihistamines, hydrocortisone creams and Calamine lotion may help, but be sure to read the labels as not everyone should use these medications.
The only real danger from chigger bites is secondary infection that develops after scratching with dirty fingernails. If you do scratch, disinfect the skin area with an antiseptic soap or even alcohol. Chiggers in North America do not carry Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. If you think your chigger bites are infected or if you have questions about medications, call your doctor.
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