They can be anywhere outside. They love moist, grassy fields, forests, and even lawns. They are often where animals travel like lakes and streams.
Chiggers are in the same family as ticks and are technically called trombicular mites. They have a bunch of nicknames: harvest mites, harvest bugs, harvest lice, mower’s mite, and red bugs. Usually, when I talk about them, there is a Coast Guard adjective or two included because of the itch. Even with the worst itch, I have experienced, they are not as dangerous as ticks. Ticks carry and transmit the disease because they feed on multiple hosts throughout their lives. With chiggers, it’s not even the adults that get us (and our pets). It is the babies or the larval form that feed on you. The adults don’t feed on animals. They do lay bunches of eggs.
Chigger larva is so small (0.3 millimeters) that you can barely see them. After they hatch from eggs, the babies don’t travel. They will stay clumped together on leaves and grass, usually less than a foot off the ground. When someone or an animal walk by, the chiggers grab on for a ride. They don’t come in ones or twos, but rather dozens or hundreds. They are most common in the warm months, late spring through early fall. When the ground temp is between 77 and 86 degrees F, they are most active and die when it gets colder than 42 degrees.
When they grab hold of your clothing, they crawl until they find skin. Then they snuggle in on some tight place. I found my first one beside my watch band. I caught it on a piece of clear tape and put it on a slide to be identified. (Around here, I could have gotten any of many mites from a pet, wildlife, or a bird.)
About the time it was identified as a larval (6 legged) chigger, I found 30 in the top of my socks. (About this time, I was questioning how soon Crediolo would be in human form!) The tape took off a dozen to amuse the staff with the microscope. I washed off others with some alcohol gauze. Scratching them off usually means that they come back for another try. The best is a hot soapy shower, but that was not possible for a few hours Friday.
Once they find a suitable place, they use tiny, scissor jaw-like claws to make tiny holes. Then they insert their mouthparts (chelicerae) into the host skin and inject saliva. Usually, they will use a skin pore or hair follicle to make it easier. After it is attached, it secretes saliva, which liquefies the host tissue so the chigger can suck it up.
All of this is amazingly not very painful or itchy. However, the area around the bite hardens into a feeding tube (cyclostome). This feeding tube is the part that itches. Itchy red bumps appear in a few hours and are really bad by the next day. Because it is the feeding tube that itches and not the mite, all of the home remedies like fingernail polish, bleach, insect spray (these are mites, not insects) don’t help.
The mites can hang out eating for several days while they eat. The itching can last for two weeks. More if you scratch and cause a secondary skin infection. (I have!) I don’t honestly know how you are supposed to not scratch. Although it could be worse, if a guy gets a bit in private places, it can cause swelling, itching, and trouble urinating. Summer penile syndrome can last a few days to a few weeks and doesn’t sound like fun.
We are also lucky; the chiggers in Indonesia or Australia can lead to infection. See a doctor if this is the case.
An immediate shower and washing my clothes in hot water would have helped a lot. Now it is over-the-counter anti-itch creams and antihistamine pills. A cold compress also helps. Chigger bites usually get better on their own. But after a few days, it might be time to see your doctor. Sometimes steroid shots or antibiotics are needed.
Of course, prevention is best. DEET for humans (unfortunately, I’m allergic) or permethrin-treated clothing. I do keep powdered sulfur in the truck and usually tuck some in my socks and on my pants when I go out. Long sleeves and long pants tucked into long socks keep them off your skin.
Of course, I didn’t expect them in the mown yard I was in, so I was totally unprepared to be sitting in a conference and see mites crawling on me. Now, I’m going over my notes, and I itch!