Column: By jiggers I got the chiggers

Published 4:32 pm Thursday, July 14, 2005

By Staff
As the saying goes, there's a first time for everything and a new first has occurred for me - chigger bites.
I've devoted most of my life to feeding mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies, ticks and no-see-ums but I've never tangoed with chiggers until now. Talk about itch! Whoever said, "no creature on earth can cause as much torment for its size" sure got that right. As luck goes, my bites are interspersed amongst poison sumac rash and they're both trying to out-itch each other. I think the chiggers have a slight lead. At least I'm getting it all over with in one swoop.
We're at the very northern boundary of chigger range and since we don't often encounter them they're a mystery to most of us. Chiggers are bright red, nearly microscopic mites closely related to spiders and ticks. Those that bite us are in the larvae stage and only 1/150 inch in diameter. Unlike the sluggish tick, chiggers scoot right along. When they hatch from the egg the little buggers scurry up onto grasses and weeds to better ambush a host. Should we happen to come by they hop aboard and set to work checking us out. The exploratory trip from shoe top to waistline only takes them a few minutes. They're looking for a nice, secluded spot of damp, tender skin to set up camp and begin chowing down. Those spots are usually under a tight belt line or waist band, under socks, in the folds of skin behind our knees or, worst of all, those places where our mothers always reminded us not to scratch in public.
It's an almost universal misconception that chiggers burrow under the skin and then die, which causes the big, red welts and severe itching. Tain't so. The chigger larvae bites through the skin, usually at a pore or hair follicle. Its saliva contains powerful digestive enzymes that dissolve the skin tissue. The chigger then sucks up the liquefied tissue. In an attempt to contain the enzymes, the tissue surrounding the bite hardens and swells but the chigger keeps injecting saliva. Soon a straw like feeding tube forms in the middle of the hard, swollen welt. The chigger may continue eating from this tube for up to four days but it does not burrow in. Like a tick, once it becomes fully engorged it drops off. That's the one and only steak meal it will ever have. It then transforms into the nymph and adult stages, both of which feed primarily on certain insect eggs, including mosquitoes, and never bite again.
We can't feel the chigger's bite. Our first inkling of the upcoming misery comes when the welts start to form 3-6 hours after the chigger begins cooking. As the welts begin to itch we usually scratch or rub them, which often dislodges the chigger for they don't firmly attach like a tick. The damage is done but we have one consolation. If the chigger is knocked off before fully engorging it can't bite again. It is doomed. The ensuing welts look about like a small boil, bright red with a white center around the feeding tube. There is no cure; you just have to tough it out while your body takes care of business. They say itching can be temporarily relieved with any of the typical bug bite lotions and creams but I'll have to call that a lie.
Spraying bug dope containing DEET around your pant and shirt cuffs, socks, waistband and any other access to your hide repels chiggers but it has to be reapplied every couple of hours. Permethrin based repellants last several days but CAN'T BE USED ON SKIN - just clothing. If you get into chiggers, a hot, soapy bath kills them. Scrub the bites with a washcloth to dislodge them. They can also hang out in your clothes. Immediately wash the clothes in hot (125 degree) water for a half hour. Hanging clothes in direct, hot sunlight causes the chiggers to bail out but don't do it in the yard where you can pick them right back up again. Carpe diem.