Chigger is a corruption of the term Chigoe, which is a term for either of the two parasitic arthropods which bear that name. One is the chigoe flea, (Tunga Penetrans), which occurs in tropical regions. The other is the larval stage of a harvest mite. In North America a common species is Trombicula Alfreddugesi. In the UK the most common harvest mite is Trombicula Autumnalis. Chiggers in North America do not carry other disease orgamisms. In tropical climes, the chigoe flea has been identified as a carrier for scrub virus. The chigger acquires the virus from rodents which it subsequently passes along to its human host.

Also called harvest mites, red bugs, scrub-itch mites, berry bugs, trombiculid mites, all in their larval stage are called 'chiggers'. Chiggers are an intermediate stage of development between egg and nymph, on their journey to become mature mites. They encounter humans (or other animals) when they imbed themselves in the skin and begin to feast upon the tender flesh. They are tiny, almost microscopic at 1/100 of an inch. Chiggers are colored an orange-red hue.

Chiggers attach themselves to grasses, shrubs, berry bushes, pine straw, leaves, treebark, and the habitats of their hosts, usually rodents. They are hitchhikers like ticks, waiting for an unwary animal to come along, brush against wherever they happen to be, and hitch a ride with their new dinner host. They feed on the skin cells and not on the blood of the host.

Although chiggers are members, like their relatives the ticks and spiders, of the Class Arachnida, they possess only 6 legs in their larval stage. They behave similarly to their spidery kin in that they chew into their intended meal and inject enzymes which aid in the breakdown of their food. The first action of the enzyme it to harden the wall of the hole, preventing closure and forming a strawlike tube from which it can draw its nourishment. The secondary effect is the breakdown of the skin cell itself. The resultant protein 'shake' is then ready to be enjoyed by the chigger. The resulting irritation, swelling, and itching are the result of the body's immune reaction to their activity. Some people will experience an allergic reaction to the enzyme the chigger injects to liquify the skin cells it dines on. The site of their activity often becomes a reddened and sore pimple-like bump, hive, or lesion. The characteristic itching usually occurs after the larval chigger has dropped away from its human dinner host. Chiggers are capable of attaching themselves to more than a single host. It is a myth that chiggers burrow into the skin and take up residence there. Their method of operation is 'attack, snack, and retreat'.

After feeding, the larval parasite drops to the ground to become a nymph which then mature into an 8 legged adult, more closely resembling their spider relatives. They are harmless to humans at this stage, becoming non-parasitic and feeding on plants. Females may lay from 300 to 8,000 eggs per litter and usually deposit them on a root, leaf, or other plant material. Having done her duty of reproducing her kind, she will die by fall.

There are many so-called cures for chigger bites. Most are ineffective or even worse harmful. Usually by the time itching is noticed the chigger is gone. Attempts to suffocate it with nail polish, petroleum jelly or other sealants is futile. Applying alcohol is also futile as the chigger has moved on but the alcohol will be quite painful to the afflicted area. Every effort should be made to prevent scratching as this can open the pustules and introduce secondary infection. Some relief may be obtained by using Benedryl, which may help supress the body's immune reaction to the bites.

The best method is prevention. When going into infested areas, apply insect repellants containing DEET, Citronella, eucalyptus oil extract,catnip oil extract, or Nepetalactone. Clothing with very tight woven fabrics are recommended to block entry of the pests. Chiggers tend to attack where clothing holds them in contact with skin. Waistbands, underwear, socks, shirtsleeves or other articles in contact with skin exacerbate exposure. As soon as returning from chigger infested areas, it is recommended removing clothing which may contain the parasites. Bathing with mildly hot water and soap is recommended.

The Latin Nomenclature for the chigger is as follows:

  • Kingdom Animalia
  • Phylum Arthropoda
  • Class Arachnida
  • Order Acari
  • Family Trombiculidae
  • Genus Trombicula

My up close and personal experience with chiggers came as a result of a huckleberry picking expedition. I, my wife of the time and her parents were going to pick berries on Snowden Mountain in Rockbridge County, Virginia. The mountain had experienced a forest fire a few years previously. One of the results of the fire was a flourishing crop of huckleberry bushes along with other berry species. The more mature timber being removed by the fire had allowed other smaller species to compete successfully.

We set out on an early Sunday morning while the heat was still tolerable. Huckleberries usually come into season in August in our area. August can be godawful hot, so we hit the slopes early to take advantage of the cool.

For those unfamiliar with them, huckleberries are small. They are perhaps twice the size of a BB, or roughly half the size of a blueberry. It takes a lot of them to fill a 10 quart water bucket. You hold your bucket as you move along the slope, going from bush to bush, picking wth your free hand.

We had an enjoyable morning picking berries. Huckleberries make some very tasty jam or preserves, suitable for topping a hot biscuit or English Muffin. I never had a thought about a chigger until I was visited by the wicked itch. I found a crop of little itchy bumps sprinkled about my waist, groin and nether regions. The itch of the bumps is absolutely maddening. I fought the desire to rake them mercilessly until I could take it no longer.

I went to town to visit my local druggist, hoping he had some help to alleviate my misery. He was what I'd call one heck of a good druggist. You could go to him, tell him your symptoms, and he'd go into the back and come out with an elixer to 'fix what ailed you'. I know, he was practicing medicine without a license. He's dead and gone now, so he's immune from the FDA, the AMA and all the other letter agencies who might wish to harm him. He ran afoul of them in his time, alright. All I know is he helped a lot of good people who needed help and I don't know of anyone he killed. How many doctors can make the same claim?

For purposes of this story we'll call him Billie. Old Billie had listened to my tale of woe and disappeared into the back of his potion dispensary. He came out in a few minutes with a bottle of his 'secret formula'. Legend has it he received the formula from a traveling man he helped out in decades past. Old Billie never disclosed that formula, though he'd been offered good money for it. He said it'd pass away right along with him, and to my knowledge that's just the way it went down.

Billie handed me the brown bottle and told me to take a cotton ball and dab it onto the reddened bumps. He also cautioned me to not apply it to my 'personals'. I knew what he meant though it was kind of a strange designation for the family jewels. Oh yeah, I had chiggers there, too.

Off home I went, looking forward to blessed relief. I did as Old Billie had instructed, got out my supply of cotton balls and set about daubing. On applying them to the infestation about my waist I found the stuff had no more sting than tap water. Thighs, groin, belly, wherever I found the little mounds of misery, all the same. I thought "Huh, what's with this? It couldn't make that much difference." I was about to learn just how wrong I could be. I soaked a cotton ball with his linament and set about dosing my nether region. Nothing, for about 30 seconds. Then somebody lit the world's biggest Zippo lighter under my chassis. I was on fire, I swear I was! I jerked the remainder of what clothes I still had on my body off and went howling down the hallway. My wife came running, thinking I'd lost my mind. It wasn't my mind I was in danger of losing. I found the box fan we used to circulate a bit of air to cool the apartment and hunkered down in front of it to let it blow some cool where I desperately needed it. I stayed there for what seemed like an hour before relief started to arrive, though it was more like 5 minutes. Five minutes is a long time when your reproductive assets are aflame, I can assure you. I should have taken Old Billie at his word. He tried to tell me, after all.

That was my first and only encounter with chiggers, and it's one I'll never forget.