(Family Features) - They tend to cause more sheer misery than any other "insect of summer."
Despite being well-known, however, chiggers aren't that well- understood, according to Ludek Zurek, research entomologist with Kansas State University Research and Extension. And, people's mistaken notions can make chigger-related problems worse, as well as overly worrisome.
To help counter some of the more popular myths, he offered this quiz:
- Summer´s big three - mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers - can transmit diseases as they suck blood.
"That's true of the first two; however, chiggers have no interest in blood," Zurek said. "And, they've never vectored a human disease in North America.
"Chiggers simply use their piercing mouthparts to inject their host with a kind of spit. Their digestive juices are able to turn skin cells' content into chigger food. In humans, the digestive enzymes also produce an allergic reaction - an itchy, red bump or welt. So, humans' biggest danger usually is that chigger bites can get infected secondarily by bacteria or fungi if you give in to temptation and scratch."
- Chiggers can embed themselves in your skin. But, applying clear nail polish (or washing with bleach or alcohol or turpentine ...) can suffocate them.
"No and most definitely no," the entomologist said. "Chiggers can't burrow. If left undisturbed, they'll keep eating for several days.
Even when attached, however, they're easy to brush off -- especially when taking a warm, soapy shower."
When such efforts are too late, he added, the best treatment for bites is to apply a combination sealant-antihistamine. For example, Caladryl is one such product because it contains calamine lotion to control itching and benadryl to serve as a histamine blocker.
"If you need first aid until you can get to a drugstore, even sunscreens with benzocaine can help," Zurek said. "Petroleum jelly or baby oil can temporarily ease itching, too, by acting as a sealant."
- One chigger can bite you several times, creating a line of itchy bumps.
At this stage, chiggers are a one-use hypodermic, so if they're dislodged, they'll quickly die. The main reason people get multiple bites is that the distribution of chiggers tends to be spotty, even in prime habitat (damp, shady areas with tall grass and weeds). Some areas can have whole congregations of chiggers, while equally good areas have almost none. High- and low-risk areas can be just yards apart.
- In chigger territory, wear long pants, tucked into socks, and a long-sleeved, buttoned-up shirt.
"That will slow the chiggers down, at least," Zurek said. "You'll do better, though, if you're wearing boots, your clothing is loose- fitting but tightly woven, and you have treated the clothing - as well as any exposed skin - with a good repellent. That kind of preparation is particularly important as far up your body as the height of the vegetation you'll be walking through."
Repellents containing diethyl-meta-toluamide or DEET (for skin and/or clothing) or permethrin (clothing only) remain the most effective, he said, but only if users carefully read and follow the container´s directions.
- To protect backyard guests and/or children playing outdoors, you need to spray your lawn.
Nowadays, researchers don't recommend applying a chigger control unless the pests are a chronic or severe problem or they're concentrated in nearby "hot spots." Products that kill chiggers can kill bug-eating spiders, too. Besides, when used alone, chemical chigger controls aren´t a long-term solution.
"Greener" and longer-lasting preventive steps can include:
- Cut the lawn at its lowest (shortest) recommended height, so sunlight can reach the ground.
- Decrease suitable chigger habitats. Weed. Remove piles and debris that can harbor the small animals that also serve as chigger hosts.
- Prune trees and shrubs to allow in more sunlight and moving air.
- Provide walkways and other entertainment areas that have no turf or other plants.
- Chiggers are microscopic insects that make your skin crawl.
"The first problem with that statement is that chiggers aren't insects," the entomologist said. "They're mites, which means they're related to spiders, ticks and scorpions - the whole big group called arachnids. The chigger larvae that feed on people's skin do have six legs, as insects do. But, the adult mites, which have no interest in people, have the typical eight legs of an arachnid.
"You're not likely to see all the ways in which they differ from insects, though. You need luck and really good eyesight to see a chigger larva scurrying across your skin like a tiny red dot ... or, hanging onto a bite like a dark little speck. People typically don't feel chiggers, even when the mites insert their mouthparts. Humans' first clue that chiggers are around usually comes 6 to 8 hours later, when the bites finally start to itch."
- Chigger bites and mosquito bites are impossible to tell apart.
"That´s true only if you don´t know what to look for," Zurek said, adding this potential clue: A chigger bite always itches for several days - the minimum time the host´s body requires to repair its skin tissue damage and to neutralize or dissolve what the chigger left behind. During that time, liquefied skin cells will still ooze out every time the bite gets scratched. When exposed to air, however, this oozy fluid will soon solidify into a hard "cap" -- a distinct feature of chigger-caused feeding wounds.
- Mosquitoes mostly bite exposed skin. Chiggers bite where you'd least like to have a painful itch.
Chiggers often roam, looking for a pore, hair follicle or other eating spot where the host's skin is fairly thin. They prefer hot, sweaty places, but are perfectly willing to stop if their search takes them up to a barrier, the entomologist said. That's why chigger bites commonly show up on the back of knees, in crotch and armpits, at shoe and sock tops, inside tight-fitting underwear, and under waistband/belt.
- People can be infested with and spread roaming chiggers.
This myth actually has some basis in truth, Zurek warned. Chiggers can't establish infestations indoors. But, people can bring roaming chiggers inside on clothing and forget to put that clothing immediately into the washer with soap and hot water.