The common chigger aka red bug is a tiny pest smaller than the head of a pin, yet its bite can cause intense itching. Chiggers actually have several stages in their life cycle, but only the larva feeds on man and other animals.
Nymphs (chiggers) are frequently found in woody areas, where there is a heavy ground cover of pine straw. In addition, one may encounter these tiny beasts in blackberry patches, along the periphery of swamps, in shrub thickets and in unmowed areas of the lawn. I repeatedly acquire them when walking through gardens or farms with tall weeds such as Queen Anne’s Lace!
Chiggers are active from spring until fall, but excessively so in early summer. Body odor is what stimulates chiggers to crawl on you when you enter into their area. This microscopic red mite can scarcely be felt as it moves along the surface of your skin, but when it finds a suitable site such as a skin pore or hair follicle, the chigger will attach. Common “chigger bite” areas are found where clothing fits tightly, such as at the sock line and waistline.
Contrary to popular myth, chiggers do not burrow into the skin. Instead, these unpleasant red bugs inject a digestive fluid that dissolves the cells it uses as food. The bites commonly cause itching in about 3 to 6 hours and dermatitis develops in about 10 to 16 hours. Sometimes the swollen and reddened skin will envelop the feeding chigger, but usually by the time you feel the bite, the chigger has dropped off. Chiggers do not transmit any disease agents to people.
Chiggers do not bore into and live inside of your skin so applying finger nail polish or other household chemicals to your skin does not help. The symptom of “burrowing” is often confused with scabbies (mites). In reality, by the time your severe itching problem sets in, the chigger is nowhere in sight. Because several hours elapse before chiggers settle down to bite, bathing soon after exposure in overrun areas will prevent or minimize additional feeding. Also, clothing should be washed to prevent reinfestation. If you suspect you’ve been in a “chigger zone,” the easiest way to dislodge feeding chiggers is to take a hot soapy shower.
Chiggers do not drink blood. They are red because that is their natural color. Chiggers drink liquefied skin cells while ticks feed on blood.
A chigger or red bug is not an adult bug. It is an immature larva.
Chiggers are not insects; they are mites.
The tiny hole or red bump on your skin is not where chiggers lay eggs.
How can you avoid chiggers?
Try to avoid places with lots of thick vegetation. If you have been in the woods, try to get a hot bath or shower within an hour or two. Use a soapy washcloth to scrub well. Scrubbing them off will prevent further feeding.
Chiggers prefer to attach themselves to areas of tight‑fitting clothing, such as around the waist at the belt or pant line, or at the ankle, behind the knees and near the top of the sock. So be sure to douse these areas liberally with repellent. As a further precaution, don’t sit or recline on the ground in wooded areas.
If you find you have chiggers, you may get temporary relief from the itching by applying a mild, local anesthetic to the welts. Your pharmacist can recommend a product. If you have broken the skin by scratching a welt, use an antiseptic to prevent infection.
Christine Bredenkamp is NCSU horticulture extension agent for Jackson and Swain counties.