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Were the Boy Scouts Right That Nail Polish Works for Chigger Bites?

Dermatologists tell us that nail polish is absolutely ineffective against chigger bites. Boy Scouts and readers insist that nail polish works!

When I was a Boy Scout, a very long time ago, there was a “solution” for chigger bites. When we were camping out in the woods, the Scout leaders would have a supply of clear nail polish to cover the bites to stop them from itching and getting worse. As a young and impressionable Boy Scout, I believed what I was told. Experience suggested that it worked. But when we began hosting our People’s Pharmacy radio show to an NPR audience, we often invited dermatologists to share their wisdom with our listeners. They always pooh-poohed the idea that nail polish works against chiggers. For decades we parroted that medical message. Were the dermatologists wrong? Could the Boy Scouts have been right all along?

A Reader Insists That Nail Polish Works for Chigger Bites:

This reader challenges dermatological wisdom:

Q. You have written that Boy Scouts were misinformed when they believed that chigger larvae burrowed under the skin. You went on to state that using clear nail polish on the bites is considered an urban legend.

WebMD says:

“Once chiggers latch onto your pants or shirt, they crawl around until they find a patch of skin. After they make tiny holes in your skin, they inject saliva (spit) that turns some of your cells into mush.

“Why do they do it? To a chigger, those now-liquid cells are food. Once they’re attached to your skin, a chigger may stay there for several days while they feast.”

So, they aren’t buried in your skin, but they aren’t just taking a bite and dropping off. They’re continuing to feed for a few days, just like ticks. That means if you cover chigger bites with nail polish, you’re probably suffocating the mites. So it probably works. That’s been my experience: nail polish works better than hydrocortisone against the itch.

A. You are right that chigger larvae can remain attached to the skin for several days as they feed. The itch often starts within a few hours as the body begins to react to the digestive enzymes in the chigger saliva.

We could find no scientific studies confirming that clear nail polish works to curtail the itch or speed healing from chigger bites. Some readers suggest that liquid bandage would also work in a similar manner. That we could find no scientific support for nail polish or liquid bandage does not mean such remedies don’t work.

The itch can be intense, which is why OTC hydrocortisone may not help everyone. Dermatologists sometimes prescribe a more potent corticosteroid gel such as clobetasol (Temovate) and suggest an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl).

Another Reader Challenges Dermatological Wisdom:

Q. I have always been told that you could cover your chigger bites with clear nail polish over the bite to get rid of them. The idea is that the chigger is alive and remains attached to the skin for days. The skin swelling covers it up so you can’t see the critter. Clear nail polish works to kill the chigger so it no longer can irritate the skin.

I remember this cure from when I was a child.

A. You aren’t the only person who believes this folk tale. We have heard from many readers that clear nail polish is the answer to chigger bites.

Here are just a few reader stories:

“Chiggers are little mites that crawl into the skin. The trick to dealing with the bites is to kill the little critters. Suffocate them by painting with clear nail polish!” P.P.

Somer shares this story about how nail polish works against chiggers:

“I have recently had chigger bites. Chiggers nest in pine trees. A remedy for getting rid of chigger bites is clear nail polish. It does suffocate the bite. I thought it was poison ivy at first then I asked my mom if we could go to the store and pick up clear nail polish. Turns out it was chiggers. The bites went away by the end of 3 days! :)”

Here is why I doubted the idea that nail polish works despite my own Boy Scout experience:

Dermatologists tell us (actually insist) that chiggers do not burrow into the skin. Rather, they bite us and inject proteins (enzymes) that can cause a highly allergic skin reaction in some people. Chiggers (Trombiculidae) are also known as red bugs or berry bugs. (People often get badly bitten while picking berries.) The bites are incredibly itchy. Those individuals who are especially sensitive can end up with nasty blisters.

We swallowed the official line that trying to deal with chigger bites after the fact is like trying to put out a fire after it has burned the house down. Strong (prescription-strength) steroid creams are often necessary.

That may have been wrong. If chiggers remain on the skin injecting enzymes and digesting human tissue for days, it now seems as if the fire can smolder for that entire time. That can in turn lead to inflammation, intense itching and even blisters. For some people the reaction can last for weeks.

Amy raises a fascinating question. If something works, why wouldn’t we want to understand why it works? She believes nail polish works!

“This is the second web site I’ve found claiming nail polish doesn’t or shouldn’t be used on chigger bites. I personally have gotten chiggers twice. The first time I got bites my parents had me put clear nail polish over them. It got rid of them so quickly it seemed too good to be true.

“The second time I got them, I remembered this trick, and again, it worked like a charm.

“I can’t explain it. Chiggers may not burrow into skin, but if it works, it works! Why wouldn’t we try to understand WHY it so consistently works rather than claiming it doesn’t. Some people say it works because chiggers burrow into the skin. They may be wrong about that, so dermatologists say they must be wrong about nail polish being effective. That is a NG line of logic.

“It reminds me of when I was a kid with poor eyesight and my dad told me to stop squinting my eyes because it didn’t help me see any better. Well, but it did! Just because HE didn’t understand it (and I didn’t understand it at the time) didn’t make it any less true. Sometimes I couldn’t read something. I’d squint and it would become clearer. That was a fact. I could repeat the process and have same results over and over.

“As an adult now, I speculate this is because when you squint, the muscles around your eyes contract and affect the shape of the eye itself. This can modify where light passes through the lens and/or projects on the retina which is very likely why squinting works.

“Nail polish works on chiggers. That is a fact. You can repeat the results, so why deny it? I’ve used nail polish on my kids and it always clears them up right away. I may not understand why or how it works yet, but it feels immoral to steer people away from a proven solution just because you don’t understand it, especially if you don’t offer up an alternative that works as good or better.”

Amy raises a critical concept. Many health professionals believe that if you cannot explain how a remedy works then it must be a worthless old wives’ tale. What they do not realize is that a lot of  medications work even though we do not have a “mechanism of action” for why they work.

For example, we do not completely understand how antidepressants work to control mood disorders. At first, neuroscientists believed that SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) like fluoxetine (Prozac) worked by increasing serotonin activity in the brain. In our show # 1318 “Challenging Dogma About Alzheimer Disease and Depression,” our expert guests suggest that the belief system about the treatments for these conditions may be wrong.

Scientists do not understand why many medications work. But clinicians prescribe them anyway because they know that they do work.

James says this about nail polish:

“Although you call it folklore, fingernail polish absolutely stops the itching and problems better than anything I have ever used. I’m 65 and have had my share of these pests but NOTHING works better. The polish must suffocate them, even if they don’t burrow, and I have used Benadryl and tried hydrocortisone cream. Thanks for the great site.”

Preventing Chigger Bites is Better Than Treating Chigger Bites!

Prevention is the key to success. Here is O.B.’s approach:

“I am extremely sensitive to chigger bites. Since I live in the south, I get bitten every time I work in my yard or garden.

“Over the years, I have tried nail polish, alcohol, Clorox, hot water, ice water, calamine, plus other things. Every bite would last for two weeks, keeping me awake at night.

“I don’t like to spray on DEET so I take an old sock, put several spoons of sulfur powder in it & secure it with a rubber band. Every time I go out to work in the yard, I pat the sock all around my shoes & socks, ankles, & waist. If I apply it carefully enough, I get no bites.”

Chiggers hate sulfur. If you can’t find sulfur powder (it is not always easy to find in pharmacies or garden stores), here is an in-depth article on how to prevent chigger bites in the first place. It also reveals what to do if you end up with chigger bites. And yes, it does discuss why clear nail polish works for chigger bites.

Please share your own chigger experience in the comment section below. And if clear nail polish works for you, please tell us your story. We would also like to know if this remedy is a “country legend” that is ineffective. Our minds remain open.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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