Chiggers, popularly called güinas in Jalisco, are nearly invisible larvae of Trombiculid mites, whose bites result in exceedingly itchy red welts. I last wrote about them in 2011 and it’s time for an update.
Before 2010, neither chiggers nor dengue-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes had ever been seen in my community, Pinar de la Venta, which is situated about 1.6 kilometers (one mile) above sea level, but now both of these pests have become permanent residents here. Whether global warming is fact or fiction, I can’t say, but it seems clear that my back yard warmed up slightly about eight years ago and it’s either staying that way or perhaps getting warmer yet. So it seems to me the number of places from which you can escape chiggers in Mexico has been greatly reduced. Get ready to meet them, sooner or later!
Chiggers typically mass at the end of a leaf or weed overhanging a trail and jump aboard as you brush past. However, if the area is without vegetation, they won’t hesitate to crawl all over you, should you make the mistake of sitting directly on the ground or grass instead of on a blanket or on a chair.
Chiggers are almost microscopic, 0.4 to 1 millimeter in size, and you will probably need a magnifying glass to see one (with which you will discover that they are bright red in color, which is why they are also known as Red Bugs or coloradillas in Spanish). Although they are so small, they can run very fast on their long legs and it only takes them about 15 minutes to climb from your shoe to your belt line, a distance equivalent to a human’s climb to the top of a tall mountain. At the belt line they may encounter a tight elastic band and that’s when they decide to stop running and start eating. The waist and the softer parts of the body is where you’ll usually find the red welts.
You’ll know you’ve got them when you get back home, if — about 30 hours after exposure — you discover on your body a number of unusually itchy red spots a little bit bigger than mosquito bites. Unlike mosquito bites, however, these things do not go away overnight. In fact, they could easily continue to plague you for weeks after they first appear, if you give in to temptation and scratch them, which immediately causes them to become infected.
To reduce your chances of getting chiggers, wear long pants and long sleeves before going into woodsy or grassy areas. Before you set off, apply bug repellent to neck, wrists, ankles and calves. As far as I’ve seen, only repellent with DEET (N,N-Diethyl-m-toluamide) lasts more than a few minutes. Off is what I use. Most importantly, as soon as you get back home, take a hot shower, scrub yourself vigorously with hot, soapy water and then repeat the procedure several times. Contrary to popular opinion, chiggers, as opposed to scabies mites (see below) don’t burrow under your skin, so rubbing with a wash cloth should dislodge them.
If, about a day later, itchy red spots appear, don’t scratch them. Just apply Calamine Lotion (sold as Caladryl in Mexico). If you wake up at night scratching or strongly tempted to scratch, apply an anti-itch gel (in Mexico, Andantol) and the next day put on Caladryl.
Then all your clothes need to be washed in very hot water.
This is how I’ve been dealing with chiggers, fairly successfully, I think. After a recent excursion, I discovered I had eight chigger bites and complained about it to a friend who had been on the same hike. “What?” he texted back, “You only have eight? I have a thousand!”
• Apply coconut oil all over your arms and legs.
• Sprinkle sulfur powder in your socks and shoes (warning: it smells like rotten eggs)
• Brush your clothes or exposed skin every 30 minutes during the hike.
Squelching the itch:
• Use a paste made of baking soda and water.
• Apply ice to the bites.
• Spray the welts with salt water.
• Apply Aloe vera.
A less common, but equally itchy problem is infestation with scabies mites, sometimes called aradores (plowers) in Spanish. These are females which tunnel under your skin, laying eggs as they go. The results are small red bumps or mini-blisters connected in a straight or S-shaped line, which itch like crazy. These mites can be killed overnight with a potent cream called Scabisan, easily found in Mexico.