Posted by Anita Wright, Assistant Director of Environmental Education at Group for the East End
Chiggers may not be the most pleasant topic to write (or read) about, but I was prompted to learn more about them when my son recently complained of intense itching around his waist and ankles. When he lifted his shirt and pulled off his socks, I saw a multitude of hard, red, inflamed bumps and I instantly knew the culprit – chiggers!
Poor kid! If you have suffered through a bout of chigger bites, you understand the intense itching caused by these tiny creatures. My afflicted son had many questions.
1. What is a chigger?
2. Where did I get them?
3. Do they suck my blood?
4. Why does it itch so badly and are they still in my skin?
5. Will I get Lyme’s Disease from a chigger bite?
6. Can you please make them go away?
After I applied some calamine lotion to his skin, we embarked on a fact-finding mission about chiggers and were eager to share our answers to his questions.
1. Chiggers are tiny, six-legged, red mites (classified as arachnids like spider and ticks). You probably won’t see them on your skin because they are less than 1/100th of an inch big! They have four life stages (egg, larvae, nymph and adult) and the larval stage is the only parasitic stage. They grow up to be eight-legged and mostly vegetarian, eating an occasional arthropod.
2. Chiggers are found in brushy, grassy areas. Recently, my boys were walking the trails behind the dunes at Maidstone Beach in Springs looking for ripe beach plums. The trails are brushy and grassy. Good chigger habitat! The larvae climb to the tips of grasses and branches and leap towards a passing mammal, bird or reptile. Chigger distribution is patchy within an area, so that might be why one brother got them and the other didn’t.
3. Unlike ticks or mosquitoes, chiggers are not interested in feasting on your blood. They prefer to dine on dissolved skin tissue.
4. Once a chigger is on your body, it attaches to a skin pore or hair follicle, injects an enzyme that turns your skin tissue into fluid, and then drinks it. This irritates the skin. The enzyme also hardens the surrounding skin tissue, forming a straw for sucking the dissolved skin cells. Chiggers do not burrow under the skin. They are easily brushed off, so it’s unlikely that they stay on your skin for long. However, the enzyme sticks around for a while, and that’s why these bumps continue to itch for many days. Be aware that a bite from tick larvae may leave a similar, itchy bump. According to the American Lyme Foundation, tick larvae (which are the size of a period on this page) do not pose a threat to humans or pets. If you develop a rash or other symptoms of Lyme’s disease, call your doctor immediately.
5. You will not get Lyme’s Disease from a chigger. Chigger bites are insanely bothersome and can be itchy for over a week, but the good news is that chiggers are not known to transmit any diseases.
6. Since chiggers search for a concealed damp place on your body, they tend to gather in socks, at the waistband, and under your arms. Common folk remedies (like covering the bumps in nail polish), are unlikely to work. Creams or salves that relieve the itch and prevent infection seem to be the best remedy.
Of course, it’s better if chiggers never get on you in the first place! To lessen your chances of getting chiggers, stay clear of grassy, brushy areas, wear loose fitting clothing, use an insect repellent and shower soon after you think you’ve been in chigger territory.
Thankfully, my son’s chigger bites are starting to go away. But I don’t think he’ll want to go searching for beach plums at Maidstone Beach any time soon!