Chiggers. I Hate Them. They Itch ~ They Are Tiny ~ They Are a [cannot use that rhyming word!]

What exactly is a chigger? Well, it’s not my favorite multi-legger, that’s for sure! Please note larvae have six legs, but turn into eight-leggers as adults. These tiny “Red Bugs” ~ about 1/150″ in length ~ are parasitic larvae of mites in the family Trombiculidae. A period in this essay would probably hold two or three of them. These little fiends, who reside knee-high to ankle-high grass, prefer to wreak their violence on small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. We people are merely accidental hosts. The best human avoidance technique, by the way, is to stay away from tall grass and knee-high shrubs.

Chiggers quickly fall off after their dinner and die within hours. After landing on our body the little monsters make their way to clothes / skin boundaries on our bodies. I still remember an appalled doctor, many years ago, tracing the outline of my bra in chigger bites.

After they drop off, their bite causes intense itching originating from small, raised, reddish welts on the skin of humans. Incidentally, a chigger who feeds on our skin cells will turn dark mustard yellow. Their salivary injection is made of powerful digestive enzymes which attack skin structure and cause the intense itching as the skin hardens and erupts into the well-known red welt. Without treatment, the itching lasts up to several nightmarish weeks. Google if you want to learn more.

As a personal favor to the finer sensibilities of my loyal readers, I will not attach a photograph of my recent chigger damage. Trust me ~ “You don’t want to see it!”

During the 1940’s, when we lived in southeastern New Jersey, the climate was different from today’s strangeness. Winters were cold. Summers were hot, but not unbearable. Precipitation was normal. There was sufficient rain to support both woodlands and crops. Consequently, many pesky animals ~ especially the six and eight leggers ~ were kept under Mother Nature’s control. Explosive infestations of most pests were unknown unless ecological factors went haywire. I simply cannot recall ever becoming a chigger victim in those days. By the 1980’s, increasing environmental damage began to change this picture. As the government and the people became more and more environmentally indifferent, changes started to come about all over the world. One wonders if the recent “green” consciousness is far too little and far too late?

During an Easter vacation in the late1980’s, we decided to make a camping trip to southern Texas in order to see the resident Whooping Crane flock in their sanctuary along the Gulf of Mexico. After easily we found and admired the Whopping Cranes, and then decided to poke into natural areas of a state that we thought was overrun with cattle ranches and huge agricultural areas, so we began exploring.

Vast natural woodlands, fields, and seashores led us through state parks, natural areas, and nature sanctuaries. As a result of this trip and its natural riches, we visited Texas quite regularly, often tent camping in the numerous state-run campsites. We kept lists of plants and animals at that time, and were gratified at the growth of these lists, which tripled in a short time. Rare botanical specimens, difficult to find in other states, were common and easy to find. Innumerable examples Mexican flora and fauna along the Texas lands along the Rio Grandewere an unexpected delight. Arthropods (six and eight leggers) who were somewhat unusual in the Northeast were common in the Lone Star State. The scars of a tiny brown recluse spider bite are visible on my leg to this day.

During our trip to the Whooping Cranes, we happily pursued prairie birds to add to our life lists. That night, I awoke, itching painfully where flesh and tight clothes’ boundaries had met during the day. The next morning, I was doubled over, and we went to the ranger station to ask for advice.

“Oh, you-all got chiggers. Better see the doctor in Mission. They ain’t a-gonna stop and you’re gonna want to be dead by tomorrow,” chuckled the ranger.

We thanked him and drove twenty miles to the Mission(Grapefruit Capital of Texas!) Medical Clinic. “Walk-ins Welcome” read the shingle on the door. So we walked in. The nurse interrupted my tale of woe, and told me. “You-all just have chiggers.” I swear she was smirking.

I “had” chiggers. The doctor was amused but polite. Before he prescribed powerful but dangerous medicines to stop the itching, he warned us about future nature walks. “Use insect repellent, long socks over jeans, and wear broad brimmed hats. The drugstore had all the materials you need. He advised.

“You-all got chiggers, eh?” asked the pharmacist, glancing at our clothing. “Well, that’s why we selling sock and hats in a drugstore,” he chuckled.

Within twenty-four hours, life was bearable again.

After we returned home, I carelessly didn’t use the repellent, socks, and hat on field trips. A half dozen very painful chigger attacks later, followed by doctor visits and unpleasant medications, and I permanently learned my lesson. Or so I thought. Field trip aftermaths would no longer be nightmares.

During the years which ensued we expanded our travel area to the far west, deep south, far north, and east. A favorite place was Ohio to visit Indian Mounds and natural prairie remnants dating back to before settlers arrived. Prairies are famous for their short and tall grass. However, I stayed untouched. In my eyes, my cover ups made me look eccentric. However, you know what is said about an ounce of prevention.

How is it we sometimes think we have gained wisdom, only to let it slip by much to our determent?

In 1986 I was chosen as an Earthwatch Scholar to study Howler Monkeys in Costa Rica. The day before my flight, and already packed, I made a last minute decision to join a group of friends to search for the famous and diminutive (from one to two inches long) colorful Pine Barrens Tree Frogs These adorable and colorful amphibians have a call louder than a bullfrog, and like to hang out in trees at the edges of ponds and grassy fields.

Right! You got it. Grassy fields.

Early the next morning, I flew to Costa Rica, and by the time I checked into my hotel some fourteen hours later, I was tired. Within an hour of falling asleep, I was awakened by incredibly painful itching. “Oh, no!” I gasped. “Oh blinkety blank NO!!”

Here I was in a foreign country, barely able to speak the language, terrified of seeking medical help. What could I do? I was worried I would be sent home in disgrace. In desperation, I went down to the restaurant in the basement, picked up metal cutlery, and went upstairs. Then I heated water in my coffee maker, let the cutlery sit in it until it was hot, then held the utensils to the welts. After a half hour of continuous treatment, the pain was gone. Well, the itchy pain was. I did have slight burns on my skin.

And I will carry the scars for life.

It was a small price to pay.

At this point, you might well ask, “So, you finally learned your lessons, Liz?”

Wellllllllll – not quite.

Between 1995 and 2010, I lived and worked for fifteen years in Phoenix,Arizona. At the end of the period, I returned to New Jersey in 2010. Chiggers are not found in the western and far northern states, so they had slipped from my mind.

In the late spring of 2011, I was botanizing and photographing in the grassy parts of the Pine Barrens. By that evening, I was wracked by the familiar itching and indescribable pain. At first, I couldn’t figure out what had happened to me. Remember, I had been fifteen years away from this area. At first I thought it was a tick attack, but quickly realized ticks don’t hang out in grass. Their modus operendi is to drop onto animals from the heights of trees and tall bushes.


Quickly I used heated cutlery to alleviate the pain, and had no more adventures.

Until the week before my birthday in 2012, that is. On a lovely afternoon, I spent the day bushwhacking through grassy fields looking to photograph Early Spring plants. You’d think how reaching the age of seventy-eight would bring some wisdom. Around two a.m., the itching and pain woke me up. Quickly I activated the hot cutlery.

“After his office opens, I see the doctor!” I grumbled. Alas! Just before dawn, I awoke to find I had scratched my welts into painful monstrosities, more than four inches in diameter. Hot compresses helped me through the night.

When I stopped by the doctor’s office, which is a short four minute walk from my place. His receptionist / wife asked to see my wounds. “All I want is an OTC anti-itch cream from the drugstore”, I moaned.

She looked at me. “See you back here in an hour, Liz.”

An hour later, the good doctor P shook his head, examined my wounds, and prescribed treatment, prescription medications, and good advice: “Stay out of the grass. Period.”

You know, I do believe I finally GOT the message. “Stay out of the grass. Period.”


1 Comment


One response to “Chiggers. I Hate Them. They Itch ~ They Are Tiny ~ They Are a [cannot use that rhyming word!]

  1. Heather Preston

    My son just got back from Costa Rica. He said that insect repellent was no match for the chiggers that attacked him and his friends! He is pretty eaten up. He said that the salt water helped when they swam in the ocean.

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