Question: A week or so ago, I visited a nature preserve and ventured off into areas where there was taller grass. I woke up the following morning to intense itching around my ankles and knees. Those areas turned a bright red the next day. What happened?
Answer: You found a nest of chiggers. Chiggers are the immature stage of certain tiny mite species. They frequently occur in overgrown brushy or grassy areas, especially where wild animals are abundant. Chiggers' preferred hosts are animals such as deer, rodents, other fur bearers, or birds. It is a little unusual to find chiggers active this late into the year, but the weather has been generally warmer than usual.
Chiggers hitch rides on people who walk through infested vegetation. They grab onto shoes or clothing and typically explore a host for several hours before choosing a place to feed. Chigger bites are most common in areas where clothing is tight or where skin is thinnest. Bites are most common at sites around sock lines on the ankles where socks fit tightly, around the waist and near the groin. Bites also may occur in other areas, including behind the knees and even under the armpits or ears
It is no fun to encounter chiggers. The body can react to the digestive enzymes that chiggers release when they bite. One can develop a rash, intense itching and misery that can begin a few hours or more after they have fed and last for a week or two. Contrary to popular belief, they do not burrow into the skin, do not feed on blood and do not carry diseases.
To reduce the discomfort from bites, apply over-the-counter anti-itch medication. Creams containing hydrocortisone may reduce the inflammation from chigger bites, Old-time remedies for stopping itching seal the skin from contact with air. That's why many home remedies, including nail polish (for small areas), Calamine lotion, Vaseline, cold cream and baby oil can help. Consult your physician or pharmacist if over-the-counter products or remedies do not work.
Now that you know what caused your rash and itching, you can be more careful in the future when visiting wild areas. Wear appropriate shoes or boots when hiking and pull socks over pant legs so the chiggers cannot travel easily up the ankles and legs. Use repellents, especially on lower areas of the body. The same sort of repellants or botanicals one would use for mosquitos or ticks should help.
Showering or bathing immediately after coming indoors from hiking can effectively remove chiggers, which have not yet attached. If that is not possible, briskly rubbing your skin with a dry towel may remove many chiggers before they are able to attach and feed. Wash clothing immediately after returning home.
Try to reduce encounters with chiggers by steering clear of unmowed fields, brush and other overgrown areas. Instead, walk in the center of mowed trails to avoid brushing up against vegetation where chiggers congregate.
The Plant Medic, written by Ricky Kemery, appears every other week. Kemery retired as the extension educator for horticulture at the Allen County Purdue Extension Service. To send him a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org.