Many pests can trouble people such as hornets, mosquitoes, and ticks, however, one that is often overlooked are chiggers. Their bites cause intense itching and being small in size, often people who encounter these organisms are not aware of their presence. If you have never experienced chigger bites consider yourself lucky.
Chiggers go by many names. In some areas of the country, they are known as “Red Bugs.” They are several related species of mites, which are arachnids like spiders, ticks and scorpions, not insects. They have eight legs. The tiny adult mite spends the winter near the soil in sheltered areas. In early spring they lay eggs, which hatch into the small parasitic larval form. This life stage of chiggers is the only point in their life cycle where they feed on humans and animals. The small orange to red larva crawls around on the soil surface until a host is found. In addition to humans, they feed on small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
Chiggers prefer to attach themselves to areas of the human body where clothing fits tightly, or the skin is thin. That makes ankles, waistlines, knees, and armpits favorite feeding locations.
Contrary to what you may have heard, the tiny chiggers do not burrow into the skin. Instead, they suck fluids from the host, where they inject a digestive enzyme that liquefies the tissue of the host, which causes an allergic response so that it is quickly sucked up by the chigger. If not disturbed, the chigger will finish feeding within three to four days and will drop from the host.
Itching from chigger bites usually starts within four to six hours. Frequently the chigger is scratched away before it finishes feeding, but the itching sensation will continue until the body neutralizes the digestive enzyme and repairs the damaged tissue, which could take as long as two weeks in some individuals. Scratching a chigger bite, of course, can also lead to secondary infections of the wound.
Chiggers are most often found in low lying damp areas that have lots of vegetation such as small shrubs, and small trees, and including blackberry thickets, which seem especially attractive to them. One of the easiest methods of reducing chigger infestations is to clear brush and mow the area carefully to eliminates the protective cover and moisture they need to survive.
Chemicals can also be used for chigger control. Products that contain bifenthrin, Cyfluthrin, Deltamethrin, Permethrin, and others can be helpful. Always be sure to read and follow all label directions when using any pesticide to control chiggers. Repellents that contain the chemical DEET may be used on clothes when venturing into chigger-infested areas.
After visiting a likely chigger habitat, be sure to take a thorough shower. A warm shower with plenty of scrubbing will dislodge many chiggers before they have a chance to feed. Check with your pharmacist for over-the-counter products that will help relieve itching.
Don’t fall victim to these tiny terrors this year. To reduce the chances you will encounter chiggers, control vegetation to eliminate their habitat and apply insect repellents. Thus, these tactics will reduce the likelihood you will suffer from their bites.
Timothy Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with UGA Extension Gwinnett. He can be contacted at 678-377-4011or firstname.lastname@example.org