The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Chiggers - an itchy issue

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

I grew up with "don't sit so close to the TV or you'll ruin your eyes" and "Don't sit in the grass or you'll get chiggers." I liked sitting in the grass and I was a colorful child as a result. My childhood summers cycled through pink blotches of calamine lotion and gooey globs of baking soda, spiced with odorous, eye-blinking vinegar. Cures were much less attractive and much smellier back then. From sunup until sundown my siblings and I lived outside all summer and had our share of mosquito bites, poison ivy rashes and chigger bites despite our mom's best efforts otherwise.

As a kid I considered mosquito bites as a rite of summer. However chigger bites were another story. Chigger bites are bigger, redder and itchier than any mosquito bite. Back then nail polish was the standard treatment for chigger bites. As the cure story went, the chigger was still under the skin and applying nail polish to the bite supposedly smothered and, therefore, killed the chigger. Normally we used clear nail polish and other than a shiny skin patch the cure was barely noticeable. On one occasion only red polish was available, "Fire Engine Red" to be exact. I ended up with bright red blotches on my itchy red blotches. It was my ultimate red badge of courage for daring to "sit in the grass".

Chiggers are very tiny mites and not true insects. They are parasitic in their immature stage on amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. We are not their preferred host. Chiggers can be found in tall grass in landscapes, roadsides, parks and edges of woodlands. They lie in wait on the tops of grass stems or leaves in shaded moist areas. Warm wet weather can translate into prime chigger activity.

One myth about chiggers is that the chigger larvae don't actually burrow into the skin. They prefer to feed on us where clothing fits tightly such as waistline or sockline or where flesh is thin and tender at ankles, armpits and backs of knees. They insert their mouthparts into skin often through hair follicles. They pump saliva into the skin then suck up the digested goo. They don't suck blood. The saliva causes the severe skin reaction of a red, hardened welt accompanied by intense itching. Reaction usually appears 4-6 hours after the chigger feast. By the time we itch, the chigger is most likely long gone.

For chigger bites a good anti-itch cream is best. For severe reactions, contact your physician.

In landscapes mow tall grass and thick vegetation. To determine if an area has chiggers, place six-inch squares of black cardboard on the edge of the tall grass. Within a few minutes yellowish or pinkish tiny chiggers will collect on top of the cardboard. Spot sprays of carbaryl pesticide may be used in grassy areas to reduce heavy populations.

When hiking, stay on trails and keep moving. Mom was right. Don't sit in the tall grass. Use insect repellents containing DEET on skin and on clothing especially near openings along pant cuffs, waistband and collar. Be sure to read and follow all pesticide label directions. Wear boots, long pants and long sleeved shirts of tightly woven material. Tuck pant legs into boots and socks. Clothing professionally treated with pesticide can be helpful.

As soon as possible after exposure, take a warm shower using plenty of soap. Launder clothing in hot water. I use disposable alcohol hand wipes on my ankles, waistline and neck on my way home to a warm shower.

If you find all this chiggery info fascinating, then the Master Naturalist volunteer program may be for you. Contact U of I Extension for information PH: 217.333.7672.

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