Get the conversation going and you’ll soon find Oklahomans are ate-up with chiggers — and eaten up by them.
When newcomer turns up with red-spotted itchy ankles, Okies are quick on the diagnosis.
“Oh, you been eaten up by chiggers,” they’ll say, and likely launching into the tales of chigger-induced woe they have witnessed, or experienced, over the years.
But the microscopic mites, actually the biting larvae of one of several common mites, are not really well understood by most — so what are chiggers, really?
A common misconception is they are “a little red bug,” but the only Oklahoma red bug that is readily visible is the mascot for the Chigger Chase, a person who dresses up in a red chigger suit and leads the annual fun run and 5K race in Ardmore, which is approaching its 22nd running in November.
The race, led by a runner in a chigger suit and a Santa hat, kicks off the city’s holiday lights festival.
“It was started in the summer and someone just came up with the name and we kept it when we moved the date,” said Ardmore City Parks Director Teresa Ervin. “We do the kids run first and they all chase the chigger, the person in the costume. It’s really fun, we have a big turnout for it every year.”
Real chiggers are having a big turnout this summer. Like others in the insect and arachnid world, they have flourished during recent mild winters and warm, moist summers. When the summer heat comes on is when they’re at their best, according to Justin Talley, entomologist at Oklahoma State University.
When mosquitoes save their salvos for the early morning and evening hours, and even ticks retreat to shady areas, chiggers climb right out in the sun on the edges of tall grasses and wait to latch on to passersby.
“That’s generally where you’re going to run into them, in areas of tall grass,” Talley said. “Mites in general do well in the heat.”
Most people don’t really know what a chigger looks like, he said. A quick online search for “chigger” images in Google turns up lots of photos and cartoonish drawings of red spider-like creatures.
“No, no, most of these are spider mites, some of them are even ticks,” Talley said, looking over the first screen full of thumbnail photos.
“You won’t see a chigger,” he said. “They are very small. Most of them we see are a yellow-orange. You might see them if you encounter large numbers and see them on white cloth, they’re only 150 to 300 micrometers long.”
For comparison, the thickness of the thickest human hair is about 180 micrometers, so a chigger might be the size of a human hair clipping no longer than it is thick. An adult chigger mite, on the other hand, may be 1/20th to 1/64th inches long.
“If you see them, usually what you’re seeing is a little ball of several them,” he said.
Chiggers are in the arachnid (spider) class, but it is the six-legged larvae of one of several species of mites in the family Trombiculidae that is the biter, Talley said. There are four species in North America and about 50 worldwide.
“Only about 20 of them are medically important, will cause dermatitis,” he said.
The larval stage of the mite bites a wide variety of critters — everything from snakes and frogs to birds and small mammals and humans, Talley said.
Chigger mites overwinter as adults and lay eggs in the spring, he said. The six-legged larvae emerge as a second stage after the initial hatch. After a larva gets a meal of blood or tissue “serum” it detaches, falls to the ground and will morph twice more before emerging in its eight-legged adult stage. The full process takes about two months, he said.
“Each summer here we’ll probably see two or three generations of chigger mites,” he said.
What people do see is the evidence the larva leave behind; the itchy red bumps and welts.
“Usually it’s around the ankles, under the socks, behind the knees, the underwear or bathing trunk area, where your clothing fits tightly,” said Dr. George Monks, dermatologist at Tulsa Dermatology Clinic. “On top of the big toe is a good one, too.”
“They can be pretty miserable,” he said. “It’s hard not to scratch.”
“Growing up, the worse place I remember always getting them was when we were picking blueberries. I would get hundreds of bites on my legs, mostly because we were in tall grass around those bushy areas.”
Another big misconception about chiggers is that they “burrow in,” Monks said.
“They sort of bite and run,” he said.
Indeed they do, Talley agreed. “We’re sort of an accidental host, really,” he said. Mites may stay attached to more desirable hosts for a day or two.
“When they bite they have this digestive enzyme that ruptures skin cells and causes that itchy red bump,” Monks said.
Everyone reacts differently. Some people are very sensitive to the bites and develop itchy welts or blisters that lead to skin discoloration that might last weeks, while others may have experience slight bump that goes away in short order.
It can be hard to tell the difference between a mosquito bite and a chigger bite. The location, typically, is the best identifying factor, he said.
He sees people commonly in his practice who have chigger bite complaints. “About every other day someone brings it up. Some people come in with what they think is a rash. Most often its someone that comes in for something else but they say, ‘by the way I also got eaten up by chiggers,’ ” he said.
Secondary infections can result from too much scratching.
The dermatologist can prescribe a higher-strength topical steroid cream for treatment that will help reduce the itch more than over-the-counter products, he said.
Best home treatments for the bites are hydrocortisone creams like Cortizone or similar products or something that contains antihistamine, like Caladryl ointment or Benadyl cream.
The best way to avoid chiggers is to avoid tall grass on warm summer days, to wear DEET insect repellent or clothes treated with permethrin, wear long pants tucked into your boots or socks, and to shower as soon as you come back inside, Monks said.
Taking preventative measures is the only thing to do because one thing is for sure, you won’t see a chigger coming — unless it’s a runner in a red chigger suit wearing a Santa hat.