One of the most miserable memories of my childhood was of a time I played outside and the next day woke up to my body being covered with itchy red whelps from “red bugs,” otherwise known as chiggers.
Every crevice it seemed was lined with the irritated and inflamed bites. Back in the ’60s, it was thought that the chiggers were still embedded in your skin and you had to apply nail polish on each bite to smother them. Today, we know that is not true.
Chiggers, in the class of Arachinida, are related to spiders more than to insects. They bite only in the larval stage of development, and are mostly found in and prefer shade such as in wooded areas or tall grasses, and in brushy or moist habitats. They rarely invade manicured lawns and landscapes.
People are not their first choice as a host, but favor birds, small mammals and rodents. But when they do hop on board a human, they usually will crawl to thin-skinned areas like ankles, behind the knees, in armpits, and the worst place — the groin area.
Chiggers don’t go for our blood like mosquitoes do, rather they bite and deposit enzymes that break down our skin cells. That’s what they eat. The itching begins, then the scratching, whelps form, and infection can settle in if the skin gets too damaged from scratching.
There hasn’t been much success in applying insecticides directly on grassy areas, and many not only kill beneficial insects, but those products need to be dry before people or pets enter the treated area.
The best way to avoid getting chigger bites is to avoid their preferred habitats.
If there is an activity, a park, a hiking trail or camping area where chiggers might be, you and the kiddos may benefit from a spray containing DEET, or simply wear pants tucked into your socks, and put on a long-sleeved shirt.
Once home or within three hours of the activity, take a hot shower … scrubbing your skin with a rag or loofa.
Wash all clothes and keep shoes outside.
Products containing antihistamines, calamine or even camphor can help with any bites. I also read that the fingernail polish method actually helps, not to smother the chigger but to seal off the irritated skin so you don’t scratch it as much.
Darla Horner Menking is a Texas Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org