by Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –Summer is a fabulous time to explore and hunt for wild edibles or to hike along a cool river, but people around these parts generally avoid venturing into overgrown and untamed places during the summer months because of the ticks and chiggers. How does one even begin to tell outsiders and visitors to our fair hills about the myriad of insects that inhabit our beloved Oz? I suppose if you’ve got a vicious sense of humor, you could just let them wade into the chest-deep grass and work it out later, because they’re not going to believe you anyway.
It’s a good thing that Ozarkers have a good sense of humor when it comes to weather and bugs. If we didn’t laugh about them we would probably go insane while scratching ourselves unmercifully – and sometimes shamelessly – from May until November.
What is a Chigger?
Chiggers, also known as red bugs, are actually the larval stage of an almost microscopic mite called Trombiculiadae, which according to scientific literature, would much rather feed on reptiles, amphibians, small birds and mammals than on us. But apparently we’ll do in a pinch. And while chiggers are closely related to ticks, neither are bugs nor insects, but rather, they belong to the arachnid family and are closely related to scorpions and spiders. In their larval stage, chiggers have only six legs. But as adults they have eight legs just like spiders.
Like other arachnids, chiggers don’t burrow under the skin and they don’t suck blood. What they actually do while on a human host sounds much worse. When a chigger latches onto a human host, it injects the skin with saliva containing a powerful digestive enzyme. This enzyme, which spiders also use to consume their prey, liquefies skin tissues that the chigger then sucks up through its mouthparts.
The bites of chiggers look very similar to those of spiders, only much smaller. The area around the bite forms a hard, red, swollen dome with a little hole in the top where the cells have hardened into a feeding tube down into the skin. This tube is called a stylostome. I like to think of the bites as little itchy volcanoes.
If not removed, a chigger can feed off its host for as many as four days, repeatedly injecting digestive enzymes and slurping up the liquefied tissue. Some people react more violently to chigger bites than others, much the way some people react more violently to spider bites than others. Some people feel the itch in as little as a few hours after the chigger injects its saliva, while others feel it only a day or so after being bitten. Regardless of when the itching begins, the longer a chigger feeds, the deeper the stylostome tube and the more intense the itch.
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Once fed on by a chigger, there is very little that can be done to stop the intense itching, which is why there are so many home remedies to deal with it. Some of these remedies are effective and some are not, so I set out to look at the most common products used in the fight against the dreaded chigger bite.[i]
The most pervasive home-remedies include baby oil, nail polish, white glue, sticky-tape, and hairspray, which are applied to the bites in an attempt to “suffocate” the chigger. However, as already mentioned, chiggers don’t “burrow” into the skin at all. The reality is that chiggers generally don’t survive on the body for more than a day, since most of them are scratched or rubbed off accidentally and by the time the itching starts the chiggers are probably long gone. There is some evidence that sealing bites against air may help slightly with itching. If nothing else, sealing bites against dirt can help reduce secondary infection caused by scratching.
Another group of home remedies often touted as “chigger killers” include diluted chlorine bleach, ammonia and vinegar, isopropyl alcohol, pastes made of water and baking soda, meat-tenderizer or borax, baths of Epsom or plain salts, diaper rash ointment, hydrogen peroxide, Nix, Pine-Sol and kerosene. It should go without saying that using kerosene on the body is just a really bad idea and Pine-Sol is a chemical that should never be left on the skin for long periods of time. As mentioned earlier, most chiggers are killed before the itching begins and using products such as these to kill chiggers is a waste of time. Of course, that is not to say that some of these remedies don’t provide some itch relief. Most of the above remedies achieve this by being a counter irritant that distracts the nerves with a more intense sensation such as pain. Reports indicate counter irritants can relieve itching for about 30 minutes, but the real beneficial action comes from their ability to help keep the wounds clean and dry.
During my research for home remedies I found many sufferers reported relief by using heat to combat itching – most often in the form of very hot baths or showers, soaking in a hot tub, or by using a heating pad or blow dryer on the affected areas. After some searching I found that heat can be a counter stimulus, but moreover, studies indicate that application of heat above 56º F (49º C) can actually reduce histamine levels in the skin that cause itching.[ii] In the same vein, products that generate either topical heat or a cooling sensation, such as muscle liniments, vapor rubs, toothpaste and mint mouthwash, or taking a cold bath, appear to either act as counter stimuli, or to reduce histamine levels in the skin, or both. After some research into these latter product types, many were found to contain camphor, menthol, eucalyptus or thymol – the main ingredients in products such as Chigarid.
Of course there are plenty of over the counter products designed specifically to reduce pain, inflammation and itching, including cortisone creams, various forms of antihistamines, products containing benzocaine (a local anesthetic that blocks nerve signals used in products like Chiggerex, Anbesol, Orajel and Dermoplast) and calamine lotion (contains zinc and ferrous oxides that reduce itching and act as drying agents). If you want to try making one of the best home remedies I’ve ever found, check out my easy recipe for Chickweed Oil Infusion at Notes from Turtle Ridge: Spring 2014.
Prevention is the Cure
It is one thing to deal with itchy chigger bites after the fact, but the real cure lies in prevention. One very effective chigger repellent is a light dusting of the mineral called flowers of sulfur, sometimes referred to as sublimed sulfur or brimstone, around the ankles, wrists and waistline. Science tells us that chiggers definitely avoid this substance, but it is also smelly and some people have bad reactions to it. Plain old mosquito repellent also has some effect if you can stand the stuff. I have also had good luck applying oil-based products such as Avon’s Skin So Soft or just plain baby oil. If you would like to make your own an all-natural repellent, try blending a few drops of the essential oils of citronella, lemon balm, mint, thyme and eucalyptus into light-weight edible oils.
Ultimately, the best way to avoid chigger bites is to avoid chiggers, which is easier said than done in the Ozarks. Start by avoiding prime chigger habitat such as long grass and weedy areas, keeping in mind that chiggers tend to gravitate towards the tops of vegetation where they have a better chance of latching on to a host. Also, it is helpful to understand that chiggers, like most insects, have regular breeding cycles and preferred environmental conditions. For example, chiggers are most active when temperatures are between 77º F. and 86º F. and become completely inactive when the temperature falls below 60º F. or rises above 90º F. And the old wives tale that a good hard freeze kills chiggers is not a tale at all – chiggers can die at temperatures as low as 42º F.
The best advice I can offer any newcomer to the Ozarks who thinks they may have been in a chigger patch is to first strip off all of your clothes outdoors (it’s OK, we’re country folk around here and can get away with that sort of thing…) and either hang them outside for a few days or wash them immediately. Second get thee to the shower (or river) ASAP. If you’re in civilization, use a washcloth to rub every inch of skin on your body as if your life depends on it. Soap helps, as does hot water, but ultimately it’s the scrubbing action that kills or dislodges the chiggers. If you’re camping or hiking get some water and use a little sand to scrub yourself down with. And don’t forget the inside of the belly button, between toes, the crotch and the back of the knees; bites in these tender areas are especially cruel.
After a good thorough scrubbing, apply some inexpensive body splash (which is mostly alcohol) followed with a thin layer of body oil. The alcohol helps clean and dry out any bites opened while scrubbing and the oil helps sooth the skin and smother any chiggers on the surface you might have missed. If nothing else, you’ll end up smelling pretty good and your skin will be soft!
Good luck and happy hiking!
© Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.
- [i] Brand-name products mentioned in this article are used here for comparative or descriptive purposes only and are not recommendations or endorsements. The remedies described are common folk remedies not to be construed as treatment or prescription by the author or Show Me Oz.
- [ii] Journal of Investigative Dermatology (2005) 125, 1268–1272; doi:10.1111/j.0022-202X.2005.23942.x; Noxious Heat and Scratching Decrease Histamine-Induced Itch and Skin Blood Flow; Gil Yosipovitch*,†, Katharine Fast* and Jeffrey D Bernhard‡
- *Department of Dermatology, Wake Forest University Medical Center, Winston Salem, North Carolina, USA
- †Department of Neurobiology & Anatomy & Neuroscience Center, Wake Forest University Medical Center, Winston Salem, North Carolina, USA
- ‡Division of Dermatology, University of Massachusetts Medical School Worcester, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA
- Correspondence: Gil Yosipovitch, MD, Associate Professor of Departments of Dermatology, Neurobiology and Anatomy, Wake Forest University Medical Center, Winston Salem, North Carolina 27157, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- 12 December 2004; Revised 24 June 2005; Accepted 22 July 2005; Published online 15 November 2005.