Chiggers: A Lawrence rite of passage
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
The itchy bites started appearing earlier this month: on my ankles, my inner thigh, near my armpits. They were red and extremely itchy. Did I mention they were itchy?
My initial thought was that I'd been feasted on by mosquitoes, but I know from experience that their bites don't itch this long.
What about ants? After finding a bunch of them crawling on my living room table, I outfitted my apartment with ant traps and coated my door and window frames with bug spray. A day later, the ants were gone, but the bites kept coming.
The itching was addictive: the more I scratched, the itchier it seemed to get. I scratched under my desk at work, in the car while I was driving, in the checkout line at the grocery store, that tingling sensation always daring me to extinguish it. In the process, I turned the red, itchy bumps into red, itchy scabs. I felt like I was going insane.
"Oh, those are chigger bites," my neighbor said nonchalantly a few days after the first attack.
I did a Google search on my phone. Up popped about the ugliest bug you can imagine: red, hairy, with six legs and claw-like mouthparts. I think I would have noticed these things crawling on me.
"Oh, you can't see them," my neighbor remarked, comparing their size to the head of a pin.
And so it began: My crash course into the realm of chiggers, a world I would have rather never entered. See, I lived most of my life in the Chicago area, save for a few years in northern Iowa, before moving to Lawrence in March.
I went 30 years without hearing about chiggers, and would have been perfectly content living out the rest of my days similarly in the dark. Apparently, I never had the pleasure of dealing with the bugs because I'd always lived in areas with cold-enough winters to prevent them from proliferating. I've never missed Chicago winters so much.
Chiggers, if you're new to the lower Midwest or have been living under a rock (which, you might be surprised to find out, is not a place where chiggers generally reside), are a kind of mite that, in their larval stage, feeds on the skin of humans and, as my dog can attest, animals.
They attach to their victims, injecting a toxin that breaks down the skin tissue, allowing them to digest it (sounds delicious!). The bites cause red, pimple-like bumps or rashes with irritation that can last for days. The chiggers are by that point long gone, but you'll be forgiven for feeling like your skin is crawling with bugs.
Since the bites will drive you nuts, it's best to avoid them in the first place. The easiest way to do that is to not leave your house in the summertime. If that's not an option, avoid heavy vegetation, especially in damp areas. You can also spray yourself with DEET insect repellent — I'd recommend one of the unscented and dry variety, to avoid smelling like a chemical factory — or sprinkle sulfur powder on your socks or pants (sulfur can also be put on chigger-infested areas in your yard to repel the critters).
Wearing pants rather than shorts might also help, though chiggers are small enough to pass through clothing. If you're out in the wild for an extended period of time, shower right after you get home. And be generous with the soap.
How to treat them
The appropriately named Lee Bittenbender, a Lawrence dermatologist, told me that over-the-counter topical steroid creams like hydrocortisone should alleviate the itching, though doctors such as he can prescribe stronger creams or even inject cortisone directly into the bites. I've also learned there's a product called Chigg Away — "the Soldier's Choice" — that contains sulfur and purports to be able to both prevent and treat chigger bites.
A few people recommended I put clear nail polish on the bites. Some claim it kills the chiggers, which have burrowed themselves in your skin. That's untrue, however, as the bugs actually just attach to hair or follicles. Whether nail polish actually treats itching hasn't been scientifically proven, though if you've been bit by chiggers you'll be willing to do whatever works.
I asked Raymond Cloyd, professor of entomology at Kansas State, whether the bugs were any more prevalent than normal this summer.
"Chiggers are probably a little worse this year because of the mild spring we had, which resulted in a lot of vegetation growing, a lot of grass and meadows filling in, compared to last year when it was really dry," he said.
Charles Michener, a professor emeritus of entomology at Kansas University, has been researching chiggers for decades. During World War II, he actually studied them in Panama, discovering that the chiggers there, like their Kansas brethren, do not transmit diseases (chiggers in other parts of the world do).
So, how would he describe chiggers to a Lawrence newbie?
"A terrible pest," he said without delay.
Michener has, however, heard that North Lawrence is largely free of chiggers.
"I doubt if that's 100-percent true. But I can imagine that they are much less abundant there because the soil there is sandy," he said. "Sandy soil tends to dry out and doesn't provide the conditions the adults need to live."
Michener said people who have lived in chigger-ravaged areas for years can actually develop a tolerance for them. Which probably explains why my chigger story has been met with many a shrug, as if I was telling people that Kansas grows a lot of wheat.
The bug — like Michener — has long been a Lawrence staple.
"I came in 1948," the 94-year-old told me. "Chiggers were bad then and have been ever since."
Looks like I better get used to them.