Don’t be a smoothie for chiggers!

Missouri Department of Conservation

Believe or not, chiggers really do have some good qualities. The adults never bother us. They don’t carry diseases. They don’t even suck blood. And they really don’t stick around for more than a few days.

They do, however, make a smoothie out of your skin.

As the weather warms up in May and people find themselves venturing out into brushy areas, encounters with chiggers are very common. The tiny reddish critters, at less than a half a millimeter in diameter, are practically impossible to see. They tend to live in grassy, weedy, or brushy areas, especially if that plant mater can maintain some moisture that chiggers tend to thrive in. As temperatures warm up to the upper 70’s and 80’s, they become active.

Chiggers are really a species of mites. The ones that bother us are in their larval state, not adults. They require a host to feed on so they can transform into their adult stage and reproduce. As adults they feed on plants, not people. Even as larvae, humans are second choices for chiggers; they actually prefer reptiles and birds to us.

But all it takes is a brief walk through prime chigger habitat, and hundreds of the tiny critters can latch on to socks, pants, and bare legs using minute claws on their legs. From there, the chiggers find their way to areas of softer skin, and often under cuffs of socks or the waistbands of pants. It’s there they feed!

The process begins when the chigger larvae use their mouthparts to puncture the skin and then inject a saliva containing digestive enzymes. This breaks down skin into liquid form and our bodies respond by creating a hole which hardens around the edges. This makes a feeding tube for the chigger called a stylostome. The parasite takes in the dissolved tissue, as if through a straw. The result is a smoothie made from dissolved skin for the chigger, and an uncomfortable allergic reaction for us. That reaction causes intense itching. We see the effect of many chiggers as multiple red welts that can swell and become painful if we scratch them.

What’s the best way of dealing with chiggers then? Prevention is a good first step! Avoid places where chiggers like to live. Don’t walk through brushy places in shorts with your legs unprotected; pant legs provide at least a little bit of a barrier. Use a reliable insect repellant like DEET. Take a thorough shower as soon as you can after returning and wash your clothes.

If you do end up being a host to chiggers, don’t try smothering them with nail polish of other such folk remedies — they simply don’t work. It’s best to use some soothing lotion like calamine. Hydrocortisone cream can temper the allergic reaction, and antibiotic ointments can help prevent infection from too much itching. The irritation will typically subside within a few days once the chiggers have had enough and drop off. Rarely, in more severe or persistent cases, a visit to a doctor might be in order.

So, if you’d like to prevent your baby smooth skin from becoming a smoothie for chiggers, you just might want to keep these tips in mind!

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