A call from a grossed-out, scratched to near bleeding co-worker has inspired me to make this week Chigger Awareness Week! Actually, I don't know if there is such a thing but if you have ever been bitten by chiggers it rates right up there with sunburn as one of the most unpleasant summer experiences you can have.
Beware of chiggers! Every year we get lots of phone calls from people who get chigger bites when gardening, spending time in their backyard, camping, or watching fireworks. In Nebraska, chiggers are most active in June and July. Bites seem to peak around the 4th of July when people spend more time outdoors, but like everything else they are early this year.
Chiggers are actually immature mites, and are closely related to spiders and ticks. They are tiny, nearly invisible creatures, but they pack a large punch in the itch department. Some people think that chiggers burrow into the skin but they attach just like ticks. The reason the bites itch so intensely is that the saliva from its needle like mouthparts forms a feeding tube (stylostome) by dissolving cells around the bite area. In other words, the critters are forming a straw-like structure to suck up your liquefied body cells. Your body will react by attacking this structure and slowly absorbing it, but the process takes up to a week, and during this time the accompanying allergic reaction causes swelling and itching that can be nearly unbearable to many people. Often the bite occurs in an area where a tight band of clothing like a belt or underwear elastic prevents them from moving further as they crawl around looking for a tender feeding site. A common "cure" of putting fingernail polish over the bite area will not kill the chigger and is not recommended.
Sadistic "experts" tell people not to scratch the itch because that will make it worse, but good luck with that advice! A good over the counter anti-itch cream/disinfectant combo will give some temporary relief, along with prevention of a secondary infection from too much scratching.
Here are some other suggestions that offer some protection from chiggers:
Stay out of areas where chiggers are likely to be present including woodlots, pastures, roadside ditches, or other areas with tall grasses and weeds. I will never do a highway trash pickup in June or July ever again! Chiggers are especially common in moist low-lying areas, but they found me when I was watering fruit trees in my dry brome grass lot.
Wear loose-fitting clothing and avoid sitting or reclining on the ground when camping, picnicking, or working outdoors. Apply a repellent (DEET works) to shoes, socks, and trousers before entering chigger-infested areas. As soon as possible after returning from a chiggers-infested area, take a hot shower using plenty of soap and water. This will kill or dislodge many of the chiggers. Then launder clothing prior to re-wearing.
Where chiggers are a problem in landscapes, keep lawns and shrubbery well-manicured, especially in areas adjacent to dwellings. Chiggers can also be reduced by treating turf with insecticidal sprays. A liquid treatment of bifenthrin, a common insecticide, will help. Follow all label directions.