Chiggers- Myths, Facts and More
Summer camp time has arrived and our boys will be heading off to the wilderness. Maybe not the wilderness but they will be away from 46” TV screens, mom’s home cooked meals and lots of times to just lie around. Now they are learning new skills, working on merit badges and gaining some self- confidence. They are also probably wondering through chigger country.
Chiggers have been a topic of discussion for as long as Scouts have been camping. One truth is that they are tiny red critters that can cause you to itch and scratch for several days. Some myths are that they are insects that bore into your skin, drink your blood and can be gotten rid of by covering the area with clear nail polish. These myths have been around a long time because I have heard them all.
The chigger that bites you is not an insect at all. At less than 1/150th of an inch in diameter the creature that bites you is actually the larva form of a specific mite, the Trombiculidae mite. Although this mite is an arachnid (8 legs), the larvae form has only 6 legs. A very confused little guy.
Chiggers do not burrow into your skin and bury themselves there. Their dying, decomposing body is not what causes you to itch. They do not drink your blood. As you walk through the tall grass, chiggers run onto your boots or clothes. They scurry around looking for a tender place to attach themselves, often finding a good location at a hair follicle or pore near the top of the sock line, the waist, the back of the knee or the crotch. The chigger then inserts a specialized mouth part into the skin. Saliva, which can dissolve skin tissue, is then secreted into the wound. The chigger lives on this dissolved skin, not blood.
A person bitten by a chigger usually does not fell any symptoms for the first several hours. The person’s body begins to react to the saliva by forming a wall of hardened cells around the bite. This hardened tube-like area is called a stylostome. Unfortunately while the stylostome protects the surrounding areas from being affected by the chigger’s saliva, the tube acts like a straw and allows the chigger to feed more easily. The stylostome is what causes the redness and irritation. As the chigger feeds for a longer period of time, the stylostome gets larger and goes deeper. To be completely filled a chigger might need to eat for three or four days.
People are not the chigger’s host of choice. They prefer birds or reptiles. People put up more of a defense. Brushing or washing will dislodge the chigger. When this happens the chigger dies. It cannot reattach itself to another host. Seems fair.
Itching from a chigger bite usually begins a few hours after the bite and peaks in two or three days. Itching may continue for a week to ten days, the length of time it takes for the body to absorb the stylostome. Washing the area and applying an antiseptic kills any remaining chiggers, but there is no known way to counteract the saliva injected into the skin. Benzocaine, hydrocortisone or poison ivy medicines may reduce itching.
Steps to avoid getting chigger bites:
- Keep grass mowed
- Plan activities when chiggers are less active. They are most active when temperatures are between 77 and 86 degrees and are almost inactive when temperatures are below 60 degrees.
- Wear appropriate clothing. Long pants, long sleeved shirts, tightly woven socks and boots are best. Shorts and sandals are not recommended.
- Change clothes and wash them. If clothes are not washed, chiggers can remain in the clothes to bite the next time they are worn.
- Wash thoroughly- lather a couple of times.
- Use an insect repellant containing DEET
- Sulphur powder works well as a repellant but sulphur has a strong odor that might make a person undesirable to be around.
Chiggers can be a problem while camping. With a little preventative maintenance and good grooming habits chiggers will not put a damper on summer activities. For interesting facts about ticks, go to the link below.
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