Monday, May 21, 2018
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Matt Markey

Readers are itching to offer advice to bug-bitten writer


Matt Markey

The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
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A recent column about the misery that accompanies an unscheduled flesh feast by chiggers brought a swarm of emails, phone calls, letters, and in-person conversations. While some of the remarks would likely qualify as taunting, most carried either an element of compassion, or a suggested remedy.

Let’s relive the incident quickly, so we don’t arouse the nasty little chiggers and prompt them to mount another assault.

Recently, while a couple biologists were collecting Lake Erie watersnakes for an ongoing study that is strengthening the population of the once endangered sub-species, I tagged along, being careful to stay outside the striking distance of the very aggressive snakes.

The biologists were bitten repeatedly by the snakes, which are not venomous. While he escaped the snakes, the writer found out the next morning that he had been nailed about a couple dozen times by tiny critters hiding in that grassy point on South Bass Island.

Chiggers are about 1/​150th of an inch in length, and as I learned from several respected scientific sources, when they “bite,” they are using a vampire-like maneuver to insert a feeding apparatus into the skin. They inject an enzyme, their larvae feed while the area swells and hardens, and then you itch like you have never itched before.

Readers who have experienced the wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night suffering associated with chiggers were quick to offer help. Their suggestions were, in no particular order, interesting, puzzling, creative, humorous, dangerous, desperate, clever, practical, impractical, odd, odiferous, fragrant, silly, and scary. But all were well-intentioned, I think.

There were the bathroom sink cabinet choices to deal with chiggers — Vicks VapoRub, Cool Mint Listerine, Campho-Phenique, Chloraseptic, Sensodyne toothpaste, and Sudafed, or Benadryl “eaten like candy.”

And in the medicine cabinet they had pinpointed another lineup of potential remedies — Calamine, Caladryl, Absorbine Jr (apparently Senior is not up for this battle), fast-acting liquid wart remover, Chiggerex ointment, Neosporin, Solarcaine, Bactine, and Cortizone 10.

Some suggested cures from sources I had not considered — ether, apple cider vinegar, bleach, vaginal cream, olive oil, Epsom salts, witch hazel, eucalyptus, ammonia, Calgon, sea water, baking soda, an abrasive combination of sugar and honey, lavender oil, and Coca-Cola dabbed on the welts. Not sure if that was diet or full-strength.

Then a few more off-the-wall tonics were praised, such as powdered turmeric, an animal med called Vetericyn, horse balm, meat tenderizer, or sucking on old wooden matches to get their sulfur in your system. There were also suggestions to try a hot bath, or a cold shower, or warm compresses.

Heat got more votes than ice, with one reader claiming that heat changes the chemistry of the material that causes the itch. That seems to jive well with the theory behind Therapik, a new high-tech tool in the fight against bug bites that delivers heat to the site, which the manufacturer claims will aid in “neutralizing the venom and increasing blood flow,” which will reduce swelling and itching.

As is often the case, the ex-military guys had some practical ideas, and laid them out in detail. One recalled battling chiggers as his unit did field exercises in Texas. The troops would duct tape their pant legs to the tops of their boots, and tape their shirt sleeves tight at the wrist. They would coat these areas — two of the most common access points for chiggers — with repellant. Make that 1,002 uses for duct tape.

Another vet said his unit combined powder, cheap lotion, and sulfur, blended the stuff with a cake mixer, then covered their skin with the goo. He claimed that since chiggers and ticks and mites hate sulfur, they will shop elsewhere for victims. Makes sense to me.

But the overwhelming favorite in the suggestion box was nail polish. Many writers claimed to have had success with covering each bite with the liquid, which is a lacquer similar to what is used on an automotive finish. They were kind enough to suggest clear, but if you have lived with chigger bites, color would hardly matter when relief was offered.

We also heard from an area veterinarian and an astute regular reader who both pointed out, in a constructive fashion, that when I wrote that chiggers come “from the same insect group as spiders and ticks” I had erred. Instead of insect, I should have said bug, critter, creature, or creepy crawly things, since insects technically belong to the class Insecta and chiggers are in the class Arachnida, along with spiders, ticks, and scorpions.

The veterinarian, who also has a military background, indicated that prevention is the best tool to combat chiggers, so tucking your pants into your socks, using a Deet-based repellent, and washing your body and your clothing as soon as possible will help prevent scratching all night long.

The medical experts say none of the nail polish, bleach, toothpaste, or spice rack remedies will work. They claim the only effective treatment is fighting the itch and inflammation with lotions and creams or antihistamines.

But if you are miserable, you will try just about anything, medical cures or home remedies, except maybe harsh chemicals, old wooden matches, or horse balm. One thing is certain, however. The next time I wade into the high grass, duct tape will be going with me.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.

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