Chiggers - Another East Texas Itch

by Dr. Paul H. Risk

Chiggers - durn little critters a feller cain’t even see! But, itch, whooee! I remember moving to Texas as a kid and spending one afternoon during my first summer lying around in the grass enjoying the blue skies and clouds. That night mysterious, itchy red welts appeared on my ankles, behind my knees and around my waist. For the next two weeks, I did everything possible to scratch ‘em raw. I thought they were going to drive me crazy - although my father said that wasn’t a drive, just a short putt! In any case, I’d found chiggers.

Jiggers and Redbugs

Sometimes also called “jiggers” or “redbugs,” chiggers are almost invisible reddish mite larvae. They like low, damp areas with heavy vegetation best, but do well in lawns too. An almost invisible 1/64 of an inch in size, they lurk in the grass until a chance comes to attach themselves to our skin. Then they inject a tissue dissolving chemical into the victim, drinking the resulting liquid.

Chiggers Don’t Burrow Into The Skin

There is a popular misconception that chiggers bury themselves in the skin. They don’t. They also don’t feed on blood. Once they’ve eaten their fill of skin “soup,” they drop off, usually in about three days. Four to eight hours after chiggers attach themselves, the itching starts and red welts appear. The discomfort often continues for two weeks. Some unlucky people develop an allergic reaction that causes severe swelling and fever.

Chiggers Are Not Ticks

Chiggers are, however, closely related to spiders and ticks. Adults become active in the spring when females lay their eggs in sheltered places. These hatch into the six-legged larvae that create all the problems for people, although they also feed on birds, reptiles and amphibians. (Do you suppose toads and frogs itch as much as we do?) Favorite feeding spots on people include places where clothing is tight, such as around the tops of socks and on the skin under belts or elastic undergarments. They also like thin or wrinkled skin and armpits.

Chigger Remedies

There are lots of folk remedies for chigger bites. Some only help because we think they do, while others actually give relief, but not for the reason we thought. For example, many people think putting a drop of clear finger nail polish on a chigger bite suffocates the embedded chigger. Since chiggers don’t embed themselves, there’s nobody there to choke! The nail polish does, however, seal the irritated skin keeping air away which would otherwise aggravate the itching. Vaseline, cold cream and baby oil will do the same thing. Benadryl ointment and hydrocortisone creams also relieve discomfort.

An old timer once told me that putting sulfur in a sock and dusting ankles and waist areas would discourage chiggers. There may be some truth in that. Insect repellent applied to socks or skin according to the directions on the container also discourages hitch hiking chiggers. Since it takes a while for chiggers to become attached, a hot, soapy shower will easily remove them while they are still roaming your body like little boll weevils, “jest alookin’ for a home.”

Although insecticides can reduce chigger populations around your house, it’s probably a better idea just to avoid sitting or lying directly on the ground in areas where they live. Of course, if you’re determined to lie on your back in the grass and watch clouds, you will keep a lot of chiggers happy. 1