Take the itch out of chigger bites

Camping, picnics and spending time outdoors: These activities make summer enjoyable.

Not so enjoyable are the itchy red welts that appear after having been attacked by chiggers. These tiny mites are almost invisible to the unaided eye, but the discomfort they cause makes them seem 10 times their size. Here are the facts about chiggers and some suggestions for taking the itch out of their bite.

Adult chiggers are a bright red mite that crawl on the ground. Don’t confuse them with red clover mites, which crawl over patios and other outdoor furnishings. The adult female is 1/20th of an inch long, but the larvae – which are a mere 1/150th of an inch long – are what cause exasperation.

Two common misconceptions are that chiggers burrow into the skin and that they suck blood. They do neither. Rather, they attach their mouths to the skin around a hair follicle or a pore. They secrete saliva that digests the skin cells and then consume this slurry of skin.

Much of the itching associated with chigger bites is caused by histamines released from dissolved skin cells. The body’s allergic reaction to chigger saliva causes the formation of a hardened tube called a stylosome in the skin, through which the chigger feeds.

Bites may occur anywhere on the body, but they are most commonly found where clothing fits tightly: ankles, back of knee, waist, belt line, wrists and armpits.

Ending chigger attacks begins with personal protection. Avoid areas of tall grass or weeds and areas heavily shaded by trees. These moist sights harbor the most chiggers. Repellents applied to shoes, stockings and pant cuffs deter both chiggers and ticks. The best chigger repellents contain either DEET or permethrin. Make sure you read and follow all label directions when using these products. Don’t wear pet flea collars on your ankles or cattle ear tags on your shoes to ward off chiggers. Wearing these can result in chemical skin burns and other toxic effects.

To reduce chigger populations around the home, keep lawns and weedy areas mowed. Chiggers don’t like to hide where the sun dries the soil. Insecticides containing acaricide, sevin and cyfluthrin may help lower chigger mite populations.

Once bitten, the only way to stop the itching is to seal off the wound from air. Use products such as Vaseline, cold cream or baby oil. Or use products containing antihistamines, such as Caladryl, Cortizone and Benadryl. If possible, try to avoid scratching the bite because that can lead to secondary infection.