University of Illinois Extension
The Unseen Menace…Chiggers!
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[July 24, 2019]
How can something so small cause so much agony? This thought, along
with several other expletives ran through my mind as I clicked from
webpage to webpage searching for a cure to my constant itching. What
was the source of my anguish? Chiggers! My entire body (mostly the
more private parts) was covered in chigger bites.
Through the blinding itching hysteria of the next couple days, I
found lots of so-called curatives on the internet and realized there
is a vast amount of false information out there about chiggers. So
in an attempt to ease another poor soul’s pain, or at least keep you
from doing something really foolish to relieve itching, let's start
by dispelling some of these myths.
Chiggers are insects that only feed on mammals.
First, chiggers are not insects; instead, they are classified as a
Trombiculid mite, a relative of spiders and ticks. According to Dr.
Phil Nixon, retired Extension Entomologist, "nymph and adult
chiggers are predators on insect eggs, other mites, and insects…and
decaying organic matter." It is their younger stages that feed on
any hapless passerby. These guys are very difficult to see with the
naked eye at about 1/50th of an inch across, about the size of a
pinpoint. Immature chiggers feed on a variety of animals including
birds, reptiles, and mammals.
If you wear long pants tucked into your socks you will not get
While wearing protective clothing is a hindrance, chiggers are quite
inclined to climb around the host to find a suitable feeding site.
The thinner the skin the easier it is for the invader to insert its
piercing mouthpart, which is why you typically get bites around
ankles, behind the knees, in the groin and armpit area and around
beltlines. However, through my own experience over the years, I have
found that chiggers typically stop at a spot where clothing is
restrictive, such as sock and belt lines. Once, when venturing in
the tallgrass prairie in Kansas I came home with the emblazoned
outline of the vest I was wearing in chigger bites on my chest and
A chigger burrows into your skin, so you have to suffocate them
using nail polish, or bleach, or alcohol, or turpentine, or fire,
This seems to be one of the top misguided thoughts out there on
chiggers. They do NOT burrow into our skin, so you can at least
remove that unpleasantry from your mind. Therefore, you have no
reason to 'suffocate' them and certainly no reason to be pouring
bleach on your skin or heaven forbid hold a flame to the bite.
[to top of second column]
In reality, chiggers use their piercing mouthparts to inject digestive fluids
into the top layer of your skin. These juices react with your skin cells and
form a straw-like welt that the chigger uses to suck up your liquefied skin
cells. When exposed to air the fluid oozing out of the bite will solidify into a
hard cap, which distinguishes chigger bites from others.
Chiggers can transmit disease. FALSE
None of our North American chiggers have ever been reported to spread any type
Chiggers can bite you several times. FALSE
A chigger will only bite once. After that, they remain attached unless the host
either scratches them off or washes them off with warm soapy water. Phil Nixon
points out, "Chiggers drop off of the host after a day or two to molt into the
next stage. They don't stay on the host for very long". Additionally, some
satisfaction can be taken in that once you scratch or wash these pesky guys off,
So if you are a poor soul suffering from a terrible case of chigger bites
reading this and screaming "Okay I know what's true and false, but how to get
rid of the bites?!" Well, my answer is, you don't. You simply have to let the
irritation run its course. I know your heart just sunk, but let me continue.
There is no cure-all medicine for chigger bites, the best strategy is once you
have been in areas you suspect to harbor these nasty guys or you actually start
seeing bites, wash any clothes you were wearing during exposure and take a warm
shower. This will remove any chigger that may have made it in on your clothing
or you. Once the itching begins, there are various products available to relieve
your discomfort at drug stores or from your physician.
Take solace that usually the itching subsides within a week. During this time
try to scratch as little as possible and keep your hands and bites clean to
avoid secondary infection.
What can you do to protect yourself? Because never leaving my house is an absurd
option, I usually have a can of insect repellent containing DEET in my bag. My
dislike of chiggers is overridden by my need to be outside. Perhaps I am my own
Good Growing Tip of the Week: Take heart that many, many living things
feed on and within you without leaving any sign of their presence. However, when
it comes to temporary, itchy, agony, chiggers are the worst. Next time you head
out for a hike or picnic in grassy areas, products containing DEET have shown to
reduce the number of chigger bites.
[News Source: Christopher Enroth,
Horticulture Educator, University of Illinois Extension]