OUTSIDE: Avoiding chigger trouble

Published 3:51 pm Friday, July 31, 2020

By Steve Roark
Tri-State Outside

Being outside is normally a lot of fun, but sometimes, you pay a price when you run into a nest of chiggers.

For their size, these little guys are a real pain in the belt line.

Chiggers are actually baby mites.  They are almost too small to be seen with the naked eye, and are red with eight legs.

The adults, which can be seen, feed only on plants and are not a problem for us, except for their laying eggs that make more baby chiggers.

A baby chigger wants to become an adult chigger, and to do so, it needs a high protein meal like humans or other mammals.

This requires a lot of patience and fast reflexes.  Chiggers hang around on grass or bushes and wait for something to walk by.  When they sense air movement or a whiff of carbon dioxide that tells them something is nearby, they grab on and climb aboard. They will then poke around looking for a good spot to feed, preferring warm, damp places where skin and clothes are close together, such as waistlines or under socks.

Their feeding habit is a little unsettling.

They drool saliva on your skin, which contains a protein-digesting enzyme that turns contacted skin into a small blob of predigested food.  The chigger then sucks this up and repeats. It does this spit and suck routine over and over again at the same spot until it gradually makes a small hole down into your skin.

At first this doesn’t bother you, because your top layers of skin cells are dead.  But after a while, they dig down to some live cells, which get irritated.

Your skin cells treat this feeding action as an invasion and try to build up a defensive wall around the hole, resulting in a swollen red spot that itches.

Meanwhile, the chigger has grown bigger and fatter and may become visible in the middle of the red bump but are also red and still hard to see.

At this point, chiggers can be killed by your scratching.  If not, they will soon drop off, having stored away enough food to grow into adults.

The red bump continues to itch for days after the chigger is gone. Itch ointments help.

Avoiding chigger attacks is not easy since they can be almost anywhere.  Applying an insect repellent containing DEET is usually effective.

Chiggers tend to congregate in tall grass and weedy areas, so you might steer clear of those spots.  These overgrown areas often grow a pretty white flowering plant with lacy leaves called Queen Anne’s lace, which most folks around here call “chigger weed.”

Steve Roark is a volunteer interpreter at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.