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Williams: When chiggers feed, fight back

Posted: July 8, 2017 - 8:15pm

Have you ever walked through your yard or hiked through the woods only to return with red, itchy bumps? These are most likely caused by red mites, commonly called "chiggers."

Summer is the most common time for chigger bites. Kids are out of school and playing in the yard. Adults are gardening and doing yard work more frequently, so contact with chiggers is sometimes difficult to avoid. Chiggers are the larval form of a red mite from the genus Eutrombicula, also known as red bugs. This particular stage of the mite is parasitic and feeds on skin cells, unlike ticks or mosquitoes, which feed on blood. Larvae are only 1/100th of an inch in size, so spotting them with the naked eye isn't likely.

Contact with chiggers usually comes when we walk through infested vegetation. Chiggers hitch a ride on our clothing and make their way to places where they can attach to the skin, such as the lower legs and ankles. The chiggers then emit a digestive enzyme which breaks down skin cells. These enzymes cause the surrounding skin to itch and become red and inflamed. Fortunately, humans are not the preferred host of chiggers. They would much rather feed on the skin of reptiles, rodents or birds.

Chiggers can't stay on human skin very long because our bodies produce a reaction strong enough to deter them. Chiggers usually don't stay on human skin for more than 24 hours. In fact, by the time your skin becomes inflamed, most of the chiggers have fallen off. If you find yourself a victim of chiggers, the best method of treatment is to take a hot, soapy bath or shower to make sure you remove any remaining chiggers. This will kill most of the chiggers. Next, apply an antiseptic to the welts. This will kill remaining chiggers. Ask your pharmacist about products that may relieve the itching. Scratching may remove chiggers, but may result in mouthparts remaining at the feeding site. The mouthparts and the scratching can cause secondary infections that may require topical antibiotic treatment. Secondary infections can be common in children who are constantly scratching affected areas. Some common home remedies, such as covering the itchy skin with hair spray or nail polish, won't help much.

If you know you will be walking in a chigger-infested area , apply an insect repellant containing DEET to your lower extremities. Products containing DEET can be safely used on clothing and on skin. You also have the option of spraying your clothing with an insecticide containing permethrin, such as Permanone or Sawyer. Just be sure not to apply this chemical directly to your skin. For hunters and nonhunters, there are several clothing lines (ElimiTick, Insect Shield, No-fly Zone, etc.) which repel ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, flies and midges (no-see-ems).

Keeping your grass properly mowed, as well as cleaning up any unruly vegetation can help control the chigger population in your yard. Yard treatments are usually not practical or recommended. However, in cases of severe populations, an insecticidal treatment containing permethrin can be applied. Always check the label, and follow directions carefully.

 

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