Chiggers chow down in summer heat

5:44 AM, Aug 10, 2011   |    comments
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The slight cool down in this week's weather forecast may give us a bit of relief from a recent stretch of near record-breaking heat.

If you are champing at the bit get outdoors while the temperatures are less oppressive, beware the tiny chiggers that continue to chow down during the summer months.

"Chiggers are active from the late-spring through the summer and can make you miserable," said Dr. Pat Parkman, director of UT's Lindsay Young Beneficial Insects Laboratory.  "The chigger is an immature form of a red mite that lives on plants and feeds on plants when it is an adult.  But when the mite is in the larval stage, they are the carnivores we know as chiggers."

Chiggers are often encountered in tall grass or other types of thick vegetation.  If the dangerous heat and air quality alerts delayed outdoor mowing and other yard maintenance, take precautions when venturing into overgrown areas.

"What makes chiggers so difficult is they are so small you usually can't see them," said Parkman.  "They are also in patchy areas so you can get infested in one area and a few feet away you might not get a single bite."

Chiggers like the heat, but it can get too hot.  They are active when the temperature is between 60 and 99 degrees Fahrenheit.  The sweltering days of summer when highs approaching triple-digits may lead to additional encounters as people and pests congregate in shady areas. 

Any typical insect repellent that contains DEET will deter chiggers.  Prevention is imperative because victims generally do not feel the initial bite of the tiny pests.

"Once you notice you have been bitten it is usually too late," said Parkman.  "You'll notice an intense itch, then the red welts start to form, and it can take a week or more for your body to recover.  Last September, I went into a rural area as part of our insect research and walked through some briars where there was an infestation of chiggers.  When I got home my legs were covered in hundreds of bites.  The itch and pain can be agonizing for days."

If you think you have been exposed to an area with chiggers, Parkman said you should take a hot soapy bath as soon as possible to remove any lingering pests.

There are many bogus home-remedies for chigger bites due to myths about how the pests behave.

"People think chiggers burrow into your skin and the itch is where they are feeding on your blood.  That's why people would put nail polish on the bites because they thought it would suffocate the chiggers that were underneath their skin.  They are actually attached to the surface and can be brushed off your body with your hand," said Parkman.

The deep itch and red welts from chiggers are not tiny creatures lingering beneath your skin.  The painful symptoms are an allergic reaction to an injection from the surface-dwelling creatures.

"The chiggers don't feed on blood.  They inject an enzyme that liquefies your skin tissues and they feed on that tissue.  Your body reacts by having the cells around the bite swell up and hardens around the enzymes.  That creates what they call a stylostome which acts as a sort of feeding tube for the chiggers.  The itch is your body getting rid of the stylostome," said Parkman.  "It just takes time for it to heal and things like nail polish don't really do anything to help.  Your best bets are the normal anti-itch treatments like calamine lotion."

Aside from the risk of secondary infections from scratching, those unfortunate enough to encounter chiggers should not worry about other types of illnesses.  Parkman said although the mites have many similarities to ticks, they do not carry diseases.

"Humans are also not what chiggers want to feed on.  We make very poor hosts because it takes a few days for chiggers to complete their feeding process.  By that time, most people have either washed or scratched the larva off.  The chiggers really want to infest reptiles and some birds, but bite humans because they are latching on to whatever they can find," said Parkman.

Some vigilant laundry habits can prevent those bitten by chiggers from becoming repeat-victims, according to Parkman.

"If you have chigger bites, be sure to wash whatever clothes you were wearing in hot water," said Parkman.  "It needs to be hot water instead of cold or warm water.  That hot soapy water will kill any of the chiggers that might still be on your clothes."

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