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Green Speak

Horticulture topics from gardens to lawns and then some.

The Unseen Menace...Chiggers

How can something so small cause so much agony? This thought, along with several other expletives ran through my mind as I clicked through webpage to webpage searching for a cure to my constant itching. What was source of my anguish? The day before, I took a walk through the woods at my parent's house. Later that evening, I noticed some welts appearing on my legs, but dismissed the spots as mosquito bites and went about my business. It wasn't until the next day I realized what I was actually dealing with, chiggers! My entire right leg (bottom of my foot included!) was covered in chigger bites.

Through the blinding itching hysteria of the next couple days I tried any curative I came across. Through my research, I realized there is a vast amount of false information out there about chiggers. So in an attempt to ease another poor souls pain let's start by dispelling some of these myths.

Chiggers are insects that only feed on mammals. FALSE

First, chiggers are not insects; instead they are classified as a mite, a relative of spiders. According to Dr. Phil Nixon, University of Illinois Extension Entomologist, "nymph and adult chiggers are predators on insect eggs, other mites, and insects...and decaying organic matter." It is their younger stages that feed on any hapless passerby. These guys are very difficult to see with the naked eye at about 1/50th of an inch across, about the size of a pinpoint. Immature chiggers feed on a variety of animals including birds, reptiles, and mammals.

If you wear long pants tucked into your socks you will not get chiggers. FALSE

While wearing protective clothing is a hindrance, chiggers are quite inclined to climb around the host to find a suitable feeding site. The thinner the skin the easier it is for the invader to insert its piercing mouthpart, which is why you typically get bites around ankles, behind the knees, in the groin and armpit area and around beltlines. However, through my own experience over the years I have found that chiggers typically stop at a spot were clothing is restrictive, such as sock and belt lines. Once, when venturing in the tallgrass prairie in Kansas I came home with the emblazoned outline of the vest I was wearing in chigger bites on my chest and back.

A chigger burrows into your skin, so you have to suffocate them using nail polish, or bleach, or alcohol, or turpentine, or fire, etc... FALSE!

This seems to be one of the top misguided thoughts out there on chiggers. They do NOT burrow into our skin, so you can at least remove that unpleasantry from your mind. Therefore, you have no reason to 'suffocate' them and certainly no reason to be pouring bleach on your skin or heaven forbid hold a flame to the bite.

In reality, chiggers use their piercing mouthparts to inject digestive fluids into the top layer of your skin. These juices react with you skin cells and form a straw-like welt, that the chigger uses to suck up your liquefied skin cells. When exposed to air the fluid oozing out of the bite will solidify into a hard cap, which distinguishes chigger bites from others.

Chiggers can transmit disease. FALSE

None of our North American chiggers have ever been reported to spread any type of disease.

Chiggers can bite you several times. FALSE

A chigger will only bite once. After that they remain attached unless the host either scratches them off or washes them off with warm soapy water. Dr. Phil Nixon points out, "Chiggers drop off of the host after a day or two to molt into the next stage. They don't stay on the host for very long". Additionally, some satisfaction can be taken in that once you scratch or wash these pesky guys off, they die.

So if you are a poor soul suffering from a terrible case of chigger bites reading this and screaming "Okay I know what's true and false, but how get rid of the bites?!" Well, my answer is, you don't. You simply have to let the irritation run its course. I know your heart just sunk, but let me continue. There is no cure-all medicine for chigger bites, the best strategy is once you have been in areas you suspect to harbor these nasty guys or you actually start seeing bites, wash any clothes you were wearing during exposure and take a warm shower. This will remove any chigger that may have made it in on your clothing or you. Once the itching begins, there are various products available to relieve your discomfort at drug stores or from your physician.

Take solace that usually the itching subsides within a week. During this time try to scratch as little as possible and keep your hands and bites areas clean to avoid secondary infection.

For more information on controlling chiggers in your yard contact your local Extension office.

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