Featured image: Harm’s Woods, Cook County
What are chiggers?
Chiggers are bugs or mites, so microscopically tiny that you can barely even see them but you sure can feel them! Their scientific name is actually, ‘trombiculid mites’ but they reside under lots of other titles depending on where you live – harvest mites, harvest bugs, harvest lice, red bugs or mower’s mites. Chiggers are related to spiders and ticks.
What does a Chigger look like? (source)
The word, ‘harvest’ might give you a clue about the favorite residence for chiggers, and it is grass so fields, forests and possibly even the lawn in your garden. They like moisture and so are commonly found near lakes and streams and your lawn sprinkler might encourage them too.
The adult chigger does not bite, it is the larvae that bite but they are impossible to really see without a magnifying glass. If you have a few immature chiggers on your skin then they may be easier to spot, minuscule red-orange dots that are moving around. Contrary to popular opinion, chiggers do not bury into the skin but just move around looking for new areas to feed on. The biting season is popularly late spring and early fall as chiggers rely on quite warm temperatures to survive.
Chigger bites at various stages of development (source)
How to get rid of chiggers and prevent their bites
Once chiggers latch on, they can stay feeding on human skin for several days. You won’t see them but you will soon start to feel the itch. Common locations are around the waist and below the knee. A thorough wash or shower can easily and harmlessly remove them from human skin; they don’t latch on in the same way that ticks do. It’s always good to stay up to date with the latest advice from the CDC on the subject, too.
You can deter chiggers by using an insect repellent that contains Deet or an insecticide with the ingredient, Permethrin. Take a look at this permethrin clothing insect repellent from Sawyer Products. The active ingredient contained within is highly effective at repelling ticks, mosquitoes, mites, chiggers, and more. Plus, it’s said to be as reliable as 100% DEET in terms of the protection that it offers.
Lasting for up to 6 weeks (or 6 washes) on finished surfaces, plastics, clothing, outdoor gear, and fabrics, the repellent will not stain or damage your items and is ideal for those who prefer not to have insect repellent directly on their skin. Please note that you should avoid contact with skin and eyes when applying this product.
Blended essential oil sprays
If you don’t want to go down the chemical route, then a blended essential oil spray is an ethical and natural alternative. Choose Citronella, Oil of Lemongrass, Geranium, Jojoba, Peppermint, and Eucalyptus all of which have properties that repel insects whilst remaining kind to skin. Remember, essential oils should always be mixed in a base or a carrier oil like almond oil or coconut. They are too strong to be applied in an undiluted form to human skin and also should not be used for children.
Focus on areas where your clothing meets your skin which is the border that chiggers are likely to focus on and travel across, so cuffs, collars, necklines, and the top of socks. Keeping your skin covered completely is one way to ensure you stay free of chiggers and wearing clothing that has a tight weave makes it harder for the mites to penetrate. Avoid lying or sitting on the grass. Just by sitting in a chair or hammock where your feet are off the ground can reduce the incidence of chigger bites. Keeping the grass short on your lawn will also decrease the chigger population. If you are out for a walk then avoid walking in long grass or bushy areas with tall shrubs unless you are completely covered up with no areas of exposed skin.
Treating itchy chigger bites
Chigger bites don’t actually cause any harm other than the incessant itching and discomfort. However, the skin can turn red and lumpy in the area of the bites and sometimes even blister. If you scratch the bites and break the skin then it is easy to introduce infection.
The first thing you need to do is bathe or shower and scrub your skin with soap and water – ordinary soap is fine. If you look very closely, you might be able to see the tiniest of red dots moving around. Be very thorough as washing can remove all the chiggers on your body.
Next, wash the clothes you wear wearing in a hot wash and also the towel that you used to dry yourself. Warm or cold washes will not kill chiggers. Launder any blankets or towels you were sitting on whilst you were outside on the grass.
Once you have removed the travelers, then all you need to do is treat the itching and rash symptomatically much as you would with any other form of insect bite. There is no requirement to treat the bites medically as they do not cause any other problems and will clear up on their own within a few days. The best remedies have an analgesic effect, like Benzocaine.
How to treat chigger bites:
- An over-the-counter anti-itching cream will soothe the soreness and irritation – try Chigger Defense with 10% Benzocaine
- Applying calamine lotion to warm areas can help decrease the desire to scratch them
- Treat hot and inflamed skin with cold compresses infused with essential oils to calm swelling and irritation
- Wear loose cotton clothing, and avoid tight-fitting or manmade fabrics as these will encourage you to heat up and sweat
- Antihistamine tablets, the sort that is prescribed for hay fever can help with a persistent reaction
If you have a full-blown allergic reaction then you may need to seek advice from a healthcare professional. Allergic reactions can be treated with steroid injections and infected areas or bites might require antibiotics.