Chiggers are the bane of berry pickers, hikers, gardeners and farmers. These tiny, almost invisible mites hang out in grasslands, forests, parks and around berry bushes. They have been called red bugs, berry bugs and harvest mites as well as chiggers (Trombiculidae).
Chiggers are best known for the intense itching their bites trigger. There are a lot of misconceptions about the itch. Boy Scouts used to believe that the larvae would burrow under the skin and the only way to get rid of them was to suffocate them with clear nail polish.
Dermatologists discount this as an urban legend. Chiggers do not burrow under the skin or even bite. Instead they slurp up skin cells, leaving behind digestive enzymes that can cause an intense allergic reaction that is unbearably itchy.
Treatment with powerful prescription corticosteroid gels counteract this immune response. Doctors recommend spraying shoes, socks, pants and legs with DEET for prevention before venturing into grassy or wooded areas inhabited by chiggers.
Readers of this column have other suggestions. One reader describes a favorite old-fashioned technique for avoiding chiggers: “Flower of sulfur is a powder available in drugstores. Pour some in an old sock, knot it and pat it liberally on feet, ankles, legs, waist and arms. A neighbor told us about this when he invited my husband to play golf right after we moved to Georgia.”
Powdered sulfur is not always easy to find. If it is not available, try Chigg Away, a liquid that contains sulfur.
Another reader has a homemade repellent recipe: “I have problems with chiggers in my garden, and the itch from the bites drives me crazy. I made a mixture of amber Listerine, vanilla extract and oil of orange and sprayed it on my body. I took special care with my ankles, waistband on my underpants, bra and also my hair and neck. It was very effective, though I smelled like bubble gum. I detected just one bite under my arm and will be more careful with that spot in the future. I hope this helps others who are bothered by those pesky critters.”
Finding relief from chigger bites is a challenge all its own. One reader reported: “I got four bites behind my knees while working in my flower bed two days ago. I have been miserable the last 48 hours.
“I read about heat for the itching and have just tried both the warm compress and hair drier. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for the relief. I’ve been using a steroid cream that provided no respite whatsoever. I will be using heat to soothe the itch from henceforward.”
Some of the remedies readers have recommended are downright strange, not to say messy: “After years of suffering from chigger bites, I tried plain wet mustard straight from the fridge. I spread about 1/2 teaspoon on a bandage and applied it to the bite. This got rid of the itch so much faster than the hydrocortisone and Benadryl I was using before.”
Readers have also found that soaking in a bathtub with lukewarm water and Epsom salts or baking soda can soothe that maddening itch. Others apply Sea Breeze Fresh-Clean Astringent, mouthwash or even toothpaste. We have heard that Capzasin cream can take away the itch, though presumably it stings a bit at first. Most readers agree that avoiding bites if possible is preferable to treating them.