Perhaps one of the most feared and reviled of all summertime pests is the diminutive chigger, a pest with a bite that packs a big punch. Chiggers, which are juvenile Harvest Mites, belong to the Trombiculidae family of mites. They are tiny — measuring about 1/100th of an inch (.4mm) — six legged, and red. Chiggers are related to ticks, and belong to the arachnid family. In the United States, they are primarily found in the South, Midwest and Southeast during the warm summer months. Different related types of the mite live throughout the world, with the trombiculidae alfreddugesi primarily found in the US, and the trombiculidae autumnalis found in the United Kingdom.
The reason why this mite’s bite is so legendary is that the red, itchy welts they inflict on their unsuspecting prey seems an impossibility for such tiny creatures. For anyone who has suffered a full scale chigger attack, they can attest to the power of its bite. One common myth about the chigger is that they feed on human blood. Actually, the chigger’s diet consists of liquefied human skin cells. Only the juveniles of this particular type of mite feed on humans and animals, and once they have gorged themselves (and survived the attack), they drop to the ground and continue their cycle of life as vegetarians.
Another well circulated myth about chiggers is that they burrow into the skin to feed. This is perhaps perpetuated by the fact that the welts seem to grow over time, and persist longer than your typical mosquito or flea bite. Chiggers do not burrow into the skin, but rather, inject their mouthpieces into the skin over and over, leaving their digestive saliva to liquefy the skin tissue. They remain to suck up the liquefied tissue for several hours to days — if they're not scratched, brushed or washed off of the surface of the skin before they finish.
Due to the fact that the chigger has a difficult time injecting its saliva into thicker skin, it searches for thinner, softer skin, usually found in folds around ankles, knees, the groin area, waist and armpits. As the skin builds up a defense in reaction to the saliva, the skin around the feeding area develops into a hardened welt. Itching and irritation can last for several days after the chigger has finished its meal.
Chiggers love tall grass, and warm summer temperatures. They do, however, avoid anything too hot, and when temperatures dip below 42° F (6° C), they die. Women and children seem to get bit more often due to their softer, thinner skin, although if given the choice, chiggers prefer birds and reptiles as their target prey. You can try to avoid chiggers by wearing long pants and sleeves, and tucking your pants into your boots. Insect repellents containing DEET has been found to be very effective in repelling chiggers. If you think that you’ve picked up some of these pests, you can simply wipe or wash them off in a bath or shower with soap and water. If you're suffering from chigger bites, you can relieve itchiness with an antihistamine, calamine lotion, or most over-the-counter itch-relieving lotions.