I have bad chigger bites all over my ankles after going for a hike this weekend. I've never had such itchy bug bites! My friend told me to put nail polish on the bites, because it will smother the chiggers and kill them. Is that true? Does nail polish kill chiggers, and will it stop the itching?!
Don't waste your time putting nail polish on your chigger bites, because that's a myth. By the time your chigger bites started itching, the chiggers were long gone. You just need to understand some basic chigger biology to know remedies like nail polish or Vaseline won't work on chigger bites.
Chiggers, which are the microscopic larvae of mites in the Trombicula genus, feed on skin tissue. Like ticks, they're opportunistic parasites that grab onto any host that happens to wander by them. Unlike ticks, chiggers are rather bad at embedding themselves in your skin. They usually grab hold of a hair follicle or skin pore. Chiggers aren't particularly good at penetrating skin, either, so they tend to prefer areas of the body where the skin is soft and supple. People most often find chigger bites on their ankles, behind the knees, along the waistline, or in their armpits.
Once the chigger has secured itself to a hair follicle, it pierces your skin and releases some saliva, which is loaded with digestive enzymes. The enzymes effectively liquefy your skin tissue, making it easier for the chigger to feed on your skin. A healthy human immune system will quickly detect the intruders, however, and take defensive action. A red, raised bump, called a papule, forms at the site of each chigger bite. The wall of this round welt is called a stylosome, and the chigger puts it to good use. The little bugger uses the stylosome like a drinking straw, through which it slurps up a smoothie of skin cells.
To get a good meal, chiggers need to feed for 3-4 days. Unfortunately for them, they rarely have the chance to hang around that long on a human host. The slightest touch will brush them off. If they haven't already been dislodged when you remove your clothing, they'll get washed down the drain the next time you shower. In fact, if you suspect you've strayed into chigger territory while outdoors, a long, soapy shower should do the trick to remove any that hitched a ride. Chiggers fare much better on hosts with fur, where they can get a good grip and feed at a leisurely pace.
People often believe that bright red spot in the center of the bite is the chigger itself. It isn't. That's the stylosome, and about 4-6 hours after the chigger bites you, it will start itching like mad. And those stylosomes will keep itching for up to 10 days, as your body battles the foreign substances injected by the chigger. Chiggers can't burrow, and they will be long gone by the time you're praying for relief from the tortuous itchiness they've inflicted on you. You aren't suffocating anything by coating the bite in nail polish or Vaseline, and you aren't killing anything by applying alcohol or nail polish remover or any other chemical substance to the bite. The red, raised bump you're scratching is nothing more than your own skin trying to heal itself.
But I already put nail polish on my chigger bites, and they feel much better. It did stop the itching!
This might be true temporarily, but that doesn't mean you've smothered a chigger or done anything to heal the bites. Sometimes, just sealing you skin off from exposure to the air will dull that itching sensation and give you short-term relief. There's nothing in the nail polish or Vaseline or whatever other strange substance you've applied to your bites that will expedite healing, and there's no chigger hiding inside your skin to be suffocated.
How to Treat Chigger Bites
Chiggers don't transmit diseases, thankfully, but chigger bites can become infected, especially if you keep scratching them. The best thing you can do to heal chigger bites quickly is keep them clean. Wash your skin with soap and warm water, and try not to scratch them. If the itching is unbearable, apply a good anti-itch product or antihistamine cream.
Of course, your best bet for avoiding the torture of chigger bite itch is to avoid chigger bites in the first place.
- Pest Myths, College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences, Clemson University, accessed October 17, 2012
- Itchy Chiggers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, accessed October 17, 2012
- Chiggers - an itchy issue, University of Illinois Extension, accessed October 17, 2012
- As chiggers get thicker it's no time to snicker, entomologist says, Purdue University, accessed October 17, 2012
- Chigger Myths Hurt More than Help, Kansas State University, accessed October 17, 2012
- Chiggers, Entomology Department, Iowa State University, accessed October 17, 2012