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Bugs so Small You Need a Magnifying Glass to See Them

By Pam Teel

I heard of chiggers a few years ago when we were in Florida, but I never suspected that they could be in the northeastern states as well. Little did I know. The chigger index says low in the top eastern states but don’t let that count fool you. Chiggers are here in New Jersey, and if you think a mosquito bite brings pain, just wait.

I first encountered them last month when I was out feeding some stray cats who lived in the woods line by a grass lawn. I’ve been feeding this colony for 8 years now and never once had any problem. But this year was to be different, maybe because of the high amount of rain we got all summer, maybe because in some areas the grass was a little higher than usual, but the thought that these microscopic spider-like mites crawled up my legs and under my shirt, attacking my waist and upper body will make anyone’s skin crawl.  They are truly bugs so small; you can’t visually see them. They aren’t dangerous, but their bites can leave you with the urgency to itch, and let me tell you, the temptation to itch is extremely high.

Scientists call these creatures “trombiculid mites.” They have a bunch of nicknames: harvest mites, harvest bugs, harvest lice, mower’s mites, or red bugs. Technically they aren’t really insects; they are in the arachnid family, same as spiders and ticks.

You can travel across the globe, but you can’t escape these pests. What I discovered is that chiggers live in every country. Their favorite spots are moist, grassy areas like fields, forests, gardens, areas with high humidity, near lakes and streams, and yes, even your lawn.

Adult chiggers don’t bite. It’s the babies, called larvae, that you have to watch out for. They’re red, orange, yellow, or straw-colored, and no more than 0.3 millimeters long.

After they hatch from eggs, the babies don’t fly and don’t travel very far on their own. They tend to stay clumped together in large groups on leaves and grass, usually less than a foot off the ground, and attach to animals or people as they pass by.

You might be out for a stroll in the park, throwing the frisbee on the front lawn, or walking through trails in the woods, that outdoor fun might come with a price – an itchy rash from pests you can’t even see.

In the U.S., chigger bites are most common in the late spring, summer, and early fall. The bugs are active when the ground temperature is between 77- and 86-degrees F, and they die when it gets colder than 42.

Once chiggers latch onto your shoes, pants or shirt, they crawl around until they find a patch of skin. There, they use sharp, jaw-like claws to make tiny holes. Next, they inject saliva that turns some of your cells into mush.

In my case, they attacked my stomach. The area around the bites were red and raised. Nothing ever felt more itchier to me. After two weeks of it, and when the bites seemed to have gotten bigger, I threw in the towel and went to the doctor. She couldn’t exactly identify what the bites were, but did say that they looked like spider bites. I shook my head at that one. Don’t you think I would have known if I had a million spiders crawling up my body? Evidently, I didn’t. She gave me some cream, which helped a bit, but when I told a friend about the bites and showed her, she said they could be chigger bites. Thinking, how could that be? I don’t live in the south. I looked them up on the internet and sure enough the pictures of the bites looked exactly like mine. From what I read; I sort of became my own doctor. I used calamine lotion, Benadryl gel, hydrocortisone cream, and took an antihistamine every day for two weeks to help stave off the infected bites.

If you’re ever somewhere and you get home and find yourself itchier than the normal mosquito, take a hot shower, not scalding, and use a washcloth with soap. Scrub your body to get the rest of them off of you, and then apply the calamine lotion and Benadryl gel. It’s not going to go away overnight, and it might get worse before it gets better, but you should feel relief within a week or two.

To a chigger, your liquefied cells are food. When they get on you, they can stay attached to your skin for several days while they eat.

Although Chigger bites can happen anywhere on your body, they often show up in clusters around the waist or lower legs, esp. if you have been jogging or walking on wooded trails. You may not notice anything wrong at first, but in a few hours, you’ll start to itch.

The itching usually lasts for several days and can sometimes keep you awake at night. You may also notice that your skin turns red and has bumps, blisters, or a hive-like rash that may take a week or two, or three, as in my case, to heal.

Things to do to prevent getting chiggers:

If you think you’ve been around some chiggers, give yourself a full body check. You may be able to see tiny red dots, either moving very quickly or attached to your skin.

Your first step: Take a bath or shower and scrub your skin with soap and water. Using hot water, wash your clothes and any blankets or towels that touched the ground to kill any bugs that are still hanging on. Then treat your bites with an over-the-counter anti-itch cream or ointment, like menthol, calamine lotion,  Benadryl gel, or cream, or hydrocortisone. You can also get relief if you take antihistamine pills or use a cold compress.

Chigger bites usually get better on their own. But if yours are still bothering you after a few days, see your doctor. In rare cases, you may need steroid shots to calm itching and swelling. Your doctor may also ask you to take antibiotics if your bites become infected.

When you spend time outdoors in grassy areas, use an insect repellent that has DEET or wear clothing treated with an insecticide like permethrin. As you put on bug spray, pay special attention to areas where chiggers might travel from clothing to skin, like cuffs, necklines, and the top edges of socks. Wear long sleeves and long pants, with your pant legs tucked into long socks. These simple tips lower your odds of getting chigger bites. Then you can enjoy the great outdoors – itch-free! Never thought I’d say this, but I can’t wait till winter!