Red bugs and those itching chigger bites

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By Susan Brown, County Extension

Are you itching at the ankles soon after hiking, picnicking or walking on a lawn? You may have chigger bites.
Chiggers found in North Carolina, also known as red bugs, are the immature form of a mite. The bites can cause small, red bumps or welts on the skin and intense itching.
Chiggers occur most frequently in areas of thick vegetation where the animals they normally bite (small mammals, birds, and reptiles) live. Although chiggers are more common in damp, shady areas, they also occur on golf courses or lawns.
Peak chigger activity is from late spring through early fall, just when people are most likely to be outdoors. They can have several generations per year in our warm climate.
The good news, if there is any, is a chigger that attaches to a human usually dies within 24 to 72 hours because the human immune reaction to a bite prevents the chigger from obtaining any nourishment.
Contrary to popular belief, chiggers do not burrow into the skin, nor do they feed on blood or carry diseases. Chiggers tend to attach to where the skin is thin, tender, or wrinkled, or where clothing is tight. They insert their mouthparts and suck tissue fluids. That is enough detail for now.
The itching is a result of the human immune system responding to the chigger saliva that has been injected into the skin.
After returning from a chigger-infested area, launder the field clothes in soapy, hot water for about half an hour. Infested clothes should not be worn again until they are properly washed.
Take a hot bath or shower and soap repeatedly. Scratching deep can cause a secondary infection. For temporary relief of itching, apply ointments of benzocaine, hydrocortisone, calamine lotion, New Skin, After Bite or others recommended by your pharmacist or medical doctor.
Insecticide sprays may temporarily reduce chiggers, but used alone are not a long-term solution. Mowing of briars, weeds and thick vegetation and close clipping of lawns to eliminate shade and moisture will reduce chigger populations and permit sunlight and air to circulate freely.
Chigger larvae can penetrate many types of clothing, but high boots and trousers of tightly woven fabric tucked into stockings or boots help deter them. Removal of scrub brush piles and accumulated debris reduces protection for small mammals and other animals that are important hosts for chiggers.
Chiggers cannot be seen with the naked eye. In many instances, the bite from them is the only indication of their presence. Before going into an area where chiggers may be present, protect yourself by using a repellent such as deet or permethrin, available at many drugstores. Deet-based repellents are effective for only a few hours; the permethrin-based repellents are for use only on clothing and effective for many days. Apply the proper repellent to both the skin and clothing, depending on which product you are using.
Lastly, keep moving, since the worst chigger infestations occur when sitting or laying down in a sunny spot at midday with temperatures higher than 60 degrees.
Susan Brown is a horticulture agent with the Brunswick County Extension Service. Call 253-2610 or e-mail susan_brown@ncsu.edu.