Chigger realities Given a chance, these baby mites will find you tasteful

Ashley Dowling/UA photo

A microscopic photo of a chigger, the larval harvest mite, shows detail of parasite that hosts usually never see with a naked eye.

I get along with grown-up harvest mites fine, but I wish they would do something about their kids' behavior.

Most people know nothing about adult harvest mites. That's probably because they're tiny and don't do anything that catches our attention. These mature arachnids cause us no problems.

Their offspring, however, are parasitic toward humans. The larval form of these mites are the nasty, effectively microscopic beasties that we know as chiggers. And they're no fun at all.

Adult harvest mites are small enough to go unnoticed, but their larval young are only about a fourth as big - about 1/150th of an inch long - and cause misery that's way out of proportion for their size.

The chigger is a six-legged junior version of the eight-legged nymph and adult harvest mites. They are rather tick-like in build, appropriate for a related arachnid, but again they are small enough that you'll not see one without magnification.

Incur a bunch of chiggers and you'll not see them coming or when they assail you, but you'll certainly notice the aftereffects, a smattering of pustules, little red bumps, that can smite you with a hellish itching.

That's because the larval mites, the chiggers, readily use humans as hosts for their parasitic purposes. They feed on us. Nymphs and adult harvest mites do not use humans as groceries. Be grateful for small favors.

Chiggers are plentiful and active spring through early fall, but they thrive right in the heart of summer. They are out there in all kinds of grassy and weedy cover. They aren't equally spread about, but if you wander through enough green growth, you're apt to brush against some in a concentration.

What these baby mites do is crawl up a vertical piece of vegetation and wait for a potential host animal to come along and contact their ambush point. What are the odds? Not very good for each chigger, but there are enough of them that if you blunder around in the grass and weeds, you're going to avail yourself to several.

What happens then is each of those lucky larvae grabs on the passing host (lots of times it's been me) and treks along until it finds skin, and preferably thin skin in a cozy, somewhat protected place. That's why chiggers on humans often gravitate to ankles under socks, the back of knees, crotches, under waistbands and farther north to armpits.

They don't bury themselves in your hide and they don't suck your blood, the latter like their cousins the ticks. A chigger seeks an easy entry if he can find one, perhaps a hair follicle or a pore, and there it chews a hole and inserts its pincher-like mouthparts. It doesn't crawl in; it merely inserts its snout.

The feeding chigger first leaves a deposit. It injects the host with a digesting enzyme that liquifies skin cells. Next, the larva slurps the liquid up through its mouthparts. It dissolves part of you, then eats it.

We don't perceive the "bite." What we do begin to feel a few hours after the mite has finished feeding is a significant itching, the direct result of the enzyme that's pumped into us. The itching arises along with a red bump, a pustule, that forms at the bite site.

Chiggers may stay on some animal hosts for two or three days, but their feeding site on humans is typically less stable, authorities say. Supposedly, humans make poor hosts because they are more inclined to inadvertently brush away the chigger with clothing, by bathing or, especially if they remain long enough for the itch to start, by scratching.

Chiggers don't attach to their hosts nearly as securely as ticks do. Indeed, many times when the itching starts, the responsible chigger is already gone.

A key in defeating chiggers is using insect repellents - ideally permethrin repellent on clothing - to prevent them from coming aboard initially. If you're going to walk where high grass and weeds provide chigger ambushes, you'd better be sprayed down first.

As soon as you come out of chigger territory, whether you've had on repellent or not, it's best to divert those clothes to the laundry room and to put your body in the shower. A soapy scrubbing usually will whoosh away chiggers that haven't yet bitten into you, and it will dislodge others that have.

If chiggers get by all your evasive tactics, don't fear related diseases from bites. Fortunately, chiggers don't transmit any. The worst of it is the itching.

Oral antihistamines and hydrocortisone ointments on the individual bites are the best way to endure the itching. Minimize scratching (I know you can't avoid it totally) to limit possibilities of infection and scarring.

Don't bother with silly folk fixes like painting bites with nail polish to "smother" the chiggers. The chiggers may be gone already anyway. If in doubt, just wash the bites with soap, water and a washcloth.

The itching may not peak for two or three days, but it winds down after that. The ugly red bump might last for a week or better before fading.

That's what a chigger, an adolescent harvest mite, can do for you. After you wade weeds recklessly and get a couple dozen on you, you'll realize that preventative repellent and quick follow-up showering is well worth the effort.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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