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Beat the Summer Itchies - Fleas, Mosquitoes, and Chiggers - Know the Enemies 
 
by Cyndi Allison July 14, 2005

If you’re covered in red welts, itching, and scratching like a cat on a new couch, then you’ve probably been flea, mosquito or chigger bitten. Although other insects can put the hurting on a body, it’s more likely that you’ll see the offender if you’re looking at spider bites, fly bites or bee stings. Often, you’ll only be vaguely aware that you’ve been attacked by one of the big three summer pests, but you will certainly be aware later when you start itching or if any of the bites become infected.

If you head outdoors for work or play or if you have pets (especially indoor/outdoor varieties), then expect to run into fleas, mosquitoes, and chiggers. Fortunately, these parasites tend to be warm weather pests, but they can sure be irritating (pun intended) during the key fun months.

Identifying the Itchy Offenders

In order to reduce or eliminate being attacked by fleas, mosquitoes, or chiggers, first determine the source of the problem. This includes figuring out where the pool of body biters reside and which of the pests are latching on and doing damage.

Though fleas generally reside outside and like animal blood better than human blood, they will feast on people blood when hungry and will hitch a ride inside where humans become the prime targets. The best way to determine if you have a flea problem is to pat outside animals or get down on all fours, tap indoor carpet and look for the tiny jumping specks. Fleas are only 1/16 to 1/8-inch long, but it is possible to see these pests, and a light stirring can send them jumping.

Both mosquitoes and chiggers tend to be outdoor dwellers. Both love wooded areas especially spaces that are overgrown. Mosquitoes, in particular, like wet areas including spaces where water sits and stagnates.

If you’ve been outdoors and have red welts on your body, then you’ve probably been mosquito or chigger bait. Since mosquitoes can buzz and also tend to have a little nip when attacking, you’re more likely to know if you’ve been attacked by mosquitoes. If you didn’t notice any mosquitoes and have similar bite marks, then you’re probably dealing with chiggers. Mosquitoes are large enough to see. Chiggers can be seen but are small enough to be hard to detect without effort. If you think an area is chigger infected, place a black piece of paper sideways in the grass. Check the paper for small, red bugs about the size of the end of a toothpick.

Checking Out the Damage

One way to determine the pests involved is to check out the red marks left behind. Though it might seem that one red, itchy bump looks pretty much like the next, the marks, in fact, have distinct characteristics.

Flea Bites

Flea bites tend to be small. This can vary from person to person and depends on the body’s natural reactions, but overall flea bites are tiny.

They also tend to be in clusters—three or four bites in a row or circle. Fleas can bite over and over and do.

Another tip off that fleas are the offenders is the location of the bites. Flea bites are often on the legs below the knees with clusters at the ankles. Though fleas can jump up to six feet, they tend to bite low.

Flea bites are usually not noticed initially and do not start itching until several hours after the fact. Since the bites are quite itchy, it’s common to scratch the spots which can lead to infection. Some sensitive individuals will develop blisters, but this is not so common.

Bites tend to cause itching and irritation for a week or so. Small red spots may remain for several weeks, but they fade with time. Unless the bites have been scratched excessively and/or have become infected, the small red spots will not be permanent and will not leave scars.

Mosquito Bites

Bites left by mosquitoes are usually on exposed areas of the body like arms, legs, feet, and hands. The bumps (wheals) are generally the size of a pencil eraser and are bright red. Some sensitive individuals may have wheals as large as a quarter.

In fact, mosquitoes don’t bite. The goal of the mosquito is the draw blood. Only the female mosquito is involved in this blood sucking. Since the process involves tapping the blood supply, the initial probe may involve a quick and sharp pain while the saliva (inevitably left behind) causes the itching that lingers.

Mosquito bites tend to itch for a few days and then slowly go away. If the wheals are scratched and opened, then scabs form. These usually do not leave scars, but they can if aggressively scratched and if the scabs are not treated and left undisturbed to heal.

Though mosquito bites are usually not cause for alarm, some mosquitoes are carriers of disease. The most recent concern with mosquitoes and bites is West Nile Virus. Even if an individual is infected with West Nile, only 1 in 5 will exhibit symptoms and about 1 in 150 will experience major problems. Anyone who has been bitten by mosquitoes and then experiences flu-like symptoms or problems like headache, neck stiffness, high fever should contact a doctor. In rare cases, West Nile can cause disorientation, tremors, convulsions, paralysis, or even coma.

Chigger Bites

Chigger bites look a lot like mosquito bites and are often mistaken for such. If someone has red whelps and didn’t notice mosquitoes flying around or feel the bites, then the likely culprit would be the chigger.

In fact, chigger bites tend to be a bit larger and redder than mosquito bites. While mosquito bites usually leave a pinkish-red spot, chiggers tend to leave a more blood-red spot.

Chigger bites are often clustered like flea bites. This does not indicate multiple bites. Chiggers congregate in areas where the skin in thin and easy to puncture. This often includes private areas where the skin has not been toughened by the sun. Since women and children tend to have thinner skin, they are more often targets of chiggers.

Chiggers do not attack and then take off. They crawl on, latch on and stay. It takes three to four days for a chigger to complete a meal, but most are brushed or scratched off by humans before fully engorging. They, fortunately, can’t grab back on and continue feeding. It’s a one shot deal.

While mosquitoes go for your blood, chiggers latch on and then feast on skin. The skin is slowly liquefied and then digested.

If you mash your fingers on the outer edges of the red bite mark, the skin will lighten considerably, and it’s quite possible to see the chigger embedded in the center of the spot (or more likely—the feeding area which will also look slightly darker than the skin). This center looks like a tiny red or brownish colored dot. A quick swipe will remove the chigger (if it has not already been brushed or scratched away), since the chigger is not buried but only attached.

Some people advocate swiping on fingernail polish to smother chiggers. This is not necessary. If the mites are still on the skin, they can simply be wiped away. More often the dark spot seen in the center of the red blemish is simply the latch-on tube spot.

Chigger bites do not initially itch. It’s usually several hours before the saliva of chiggers triggers the body to respond. Itching peaks the second or third day, but the red spots often remain on the body and itch for up to two weeks.

Preventing Summer Bites

Billions are spent yearly for products to eliminate fleas, mosquitoes, and chiggers. Natural products (citronella and some plants) are not as effective but do take the edge off the problem. Chemical products targeted at the various summer itch-makers work better.

There are hundreds of products on the market to combat fleas. Some of the products are designed to prevent and some to treat. Some are for animals, some for homes (carpets and such), and some for humans. The best bet when dealing with fleas is to speak with a veterinarian and to map out a comprehensive attack plan. Fleas have a complex life cycle and multiply rapidly. It’s not enough to kill off the living fleas. Prevention must include a plan to both eliminate the living fleas and the eggs which are invariably part of the cycling problem.

DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) is the best defense against mosquitoes and is the active ingredient in most sprays and lotions marketed for mosquito protection. DEET does not kill mosquitoes; it simply backs them off.

While DEET does keep chiggers at bay, it does not block for very long. Expect about 2 to 3 hours of protection if using DEET in a chigger infested area. The best defense against chiggers is sulfur. Powdered sulfur is available at most pharmacies. Sprinkled around the ankles and wrists and on clothing, this usually does the trick. The downside is that sulfur gives off a bad odor.

Do note that products intended to kill insects (or mites) are not intended to be sprayed on the body. Products approved for use on the skin are ones designed to repel. Do not splash bug killer on your skin.

If You Are Flea, Mosquito or Chigger Bitten

Although the best defense is to plan ahead and prevent the summer itchies, everyone stumbles into situations where bites do happen.

If you’ve been bitten by insects (mosquitoes) or mites (fleas and chiggers), the first line of action is to shower and make sure the small, irritated spots are clean. Take extra care with fingernails, since most people do scratch. While bites may be pretty minor, they can become more serious when infected.

Unless the itching is severe, avoid oral antihistamines. These do help cut down on itching, but they also block the body from taking care of the problem naturally. Natural histamines target the problem and are involved in the healing process.

Apply topical creams combining anti-itch medications and anti-bacterials or dab on some of both types of creams. Calamine lotion is an old favorite, but it does leave pink blotches on the skin. Benadryl is a good bet and blends better. For a natural approach, combine baking soda with water and dab. Meat tenderizer (from the kitchen cabinet) can also help reduce itching.

If the spots are scratched open, treat as with any other type of minor injury. Wash carefully, apply a cream like Neosporin. Add a band-aid to prevent further irritation and injury.

If you have red blotches that do not look like typical flea, mosquito, or chigger bites, then see your family physician. Spider bites or tick bites (which can leave a bulls eye type mark after the tick has disengaged) can be much more serious. You should also see your doctor if flea, mosquito, or chigger bites are infected. Infections can leave scars or cause more serious health problems.


 

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