Acting fast can prevent chigger bites this summer

By Nancy C. Hinkle
University of Georgia

If you act fast, you may be able to keep red bugs from ruining your summer.

In early spring, female mites are laying eggs that will hatch into the larvae we call red bugs or chiggers. Only the larval stage is parasitic. All other stages prey on small insects and insect eggs.

The best way to control chiggers is to limit suitable habitat. And the best time is right now, because the larval chiggers aren't out there yet.

But you can't wait. The female mites are already laying their eggs, which will start hatching in early April. Chigger numbers will peak in midsummer but will stay high into late fall. Only a hard freeze will kill them off.

Where to look

Chiggers most often concentrate in "disturbed forests" where trees have been cut but are regrowing. These areas have a lot of underbrush (shrubs, brambles, briars, weeds) among saplings. It's perfect cover for rabbits and rodents.

In Georgia, rabbits and mice are chiggers' main natural hosts. So, to limit chiggers' habitat, just look around your property for any place rodents and rabbits would like and eliminate it. Cut down shrubs and bushes, mow undergrowth and clear out any cover that allows rabbits and mice to thrive.

Humans react pretty much the same to the bite of any chigger. But we do have different species in Georgia, one in the coastal plain and another in north Georgia.

You're not going to find chiggers in areas lacking cover. They're vulnerable to dehydration, so they have to stay in shaded areas with higher humidity. Opening up the area to sunlight dries them out, so you won't find chiggers on lawns, golf courses or pastures.

In south Georgia, chiggers are common in decaying pine stumps. In north Georgia, you find them primarily in leaf litter.

In Spanish moss?

Contrary to popular thought, chiggers aren't in Spanish moss. It's easy to understand how this misconception has arisen, though. People collecting Spanish moss typically are tramping through underbrush that makes great habitat for rodents and rabbits.

By the way, ticks like similar habitats, so by suppressing chiggers, you'll be cutting down on tick numbers, too.

Unfortunately, all tick stages attack humans, and ticks are active year-round. So be careful not to let ticks attach to you while you're clearing your landscape.

Some insecticides are registered for chigger control. But research has shown they kill only half the population and last less than a month. Because the cost and effort to spray large areas would be very high, we generally don't use insecticides to manage chiggers.

Protect yourself

If you must enter dense undergrowth during late spring, summer or fall, use an insect repellent containing DEET to avoid chigger attacks.

Treating clothing (especially socks and pant legs) with a permethrin-containing repellent such as Coulston's Permanone or Sawyer's Permethrin Clothing Repellent will help deny chiggers access to your body.

American chiggers aren't known to transmit any diseases. But their feeding does produce a severe dermatitis.

By the time you notice a chigger biting, it's already injected enough saliva to induce the full itching response. Even removing the chigger at that point won't alleviate the itching.

Putting nail polish on a chigger bite will only make it look dramatic. An anti-itch medication will provide more long-term relief.

Parents, don't tell your children not to scratch chigger bites. Any child with good sense is going to scratch something that itches as much as a chigger bite. Just do what you can to ease the itching.

Unfortunately, the itch will persist until your body's immune system breaks down the chigger's secretions. That may take a week or more for most of us.

Clearing out chigger breeding sites is the best solution. Eliminating rabbits' and rodents' habitat can greatly reduce chigger numbers and let your family enjoy the area themselves.

(Nancy Hinkle is a Cooperative Extension entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Nancy Hinkle is a Cooperative Extension entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.