Why conventional wisdom is often conventional B.S.
Most of our world is invisible to us.
The profoundly large and the very small cannot be seen directly by human eyes. When we gaze out into the universe, we see it as it was, not as it is. Due to the unimaginable distances, we only get glimpses of the past.
At the other end of the scale, the atomic and subatomic worlds are only theorized by instrumentation and complex mathematical equations. With few exceptions, the very small is even beyond the capabilities of the most powerful microscopes.
As we move up the scale of size, we can see things like cells and bacteria with microscopes, but not with the unaided human eye.
The smallest thing we can see with the naked eye is about 0.1 mm, and only then, if there is color involved, say a red grain of sand.
So, it is not surprising when we do not notice chiggers crawling around on our skin. Larval chiggers, the ones that bite us, measure between 0.25 and 0.5 mm, which is about the size of the point of a sharpened pencil.
The depth and breadth of the human visual world are exceptionally narrow indeed. You might say that we are blind to much of the surrounding reality.
As a young park ranger, I was asked to participate in a multi-law enforcement agency stakeout.
A convenience store manager had overheard a discussion between two men while stocking shelves in an adjacent aisle. According to the store manager, there was to be a large drug deal in a remote area of the park at 1 a.m. on a designated July evening.
Early in the evening of the stakeout, we all gathered at the Sheriff’s Office to discuss strategy and receive assignments. Mine was simple; I would be a lookout in plain clothes fishing from the bank of a lake.
I had a clear view of the boat launch ramp and the road leading to it from this location. The criminal activity was to take place at the launch ramp.
I was issued a shotgun and a radio with orders not to use the radio until I saw specific vehicles enter the area. Likewise, I was advised not to brandish or use the shotgun unless there was trouble and lives were at stake.
I chose a spot in tall grass to hide the gun and radio and waited. My fishing line wasn’t baited, nor did it have a hook, just a heavy sinker to keep the line taut. As I pointed out, it was my first stakeout, and things went smoothly resulting in several arrests and confiscation of weapons, drugs and other contraband.
Although my part was small, it was exciting. Afterward, I headed home and went directly to bed.
“I’ve been chiggered, honey.”
My plans to sleep until noon were interrupted around 9 a.m. by an overwhelming need to scratch my ankles, waist, armpits and other unmentionable locations.
Jumping out of bed and running into the bathroom to view myself in a mirror, a multitude of red itchy bumps greeted me.
I walked barefoot and nude to the kitchen, where my wife was nursing a cup of coffee, and I showed her my welt-covered body. She looked up from her coffee, her eyes growing larger at the sight of the infestation that covered much of my body below the shoulders.
“I’ve been chiggered,” I said.
“You have just demonstrated one of the reasons that I love you,” she replied.
“What, the fact that I boldly strode into the kitchen buck naked?” I remarked teasingly.
Smiling, she said, “No, dear, it’s your uncanny grasp of the obvious. Now, let’s get to work killing those chiggers.”
Now that we had established the cause of my horrendous skin rash, we proceeded to treat the “insect” bites the way our parents and their parents did.
My wife ran into the living room to get her purse, knowing that time was of the essence. If we were to kill the little demons and save my blood supply, we would have to suffocate them by painting each bite with clear nail polish.
Conventional wisdom dictated that the chiggers had burrowed into my skin and were draining my blood supply like a horde of microscopic vampires.
Unfortunately, my wife used only two shades of nail polish, florid red and gaudy red. Clearly, I didn’t want anyone to see my polka-dotted body.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, whichever the case may be, park rangers were forced to wear long uniform pants even in the sweltering heat of summer. It was felt by the administrative staff who worked in air-conditioned offices that wearing shorts would make the rangers look unprofessional.
My wife, a stickler for detail, counted 93 angry red welts. It took a good half-hour to dab each bite with nail polish.
We had treated the chigger bites in the manner that most everyone did. This was, and still is, the prevailing belief about chiggers, the conventional wisdom, if you will.
On the one hand, there is conventional wisdom – and then there are the facts.
Much to the chagrin of the chigger (Trombicula), we have been calling it an insect. In fact, it is an arachnid, a member of the spider family.
The chigger feeds on humans and many other creatures in the larval stage and has only six legs. To enter the coterie of spiders, it must eat a smoothie of skin cells to become a nymph. From that point on, it sports eight legs.
It does not suck our blood. When the nearly microscopic chigger bites, it releases digestive enzymes that break down the skin cells into a nutritious slurry. It is not necessary for the tiny mite to burrow into our body.
(Meat tenderizers are made of enzymes, and we know what they can do to a piece of tough beef.)
The skin cells form a tunnel called a stylostome that the chigger eats from – imagine a kind of dermal straw.
There is currently a debate whether the enzymes from the chigger cause the stylostome to form or, as some scientists suggest, the feeding tube is a dermatological response on the part of the host.
Either way, the chigger eats its first meal from the skin’s surface, not from a tunnel it has burrowed into the skin. Put the nail polish – clear or otherwise – back on the counter; you won’t be needing it.
Instead, try a remedy that will actually work.
Once the chigger has released enzymes, your skin will respond with red pimples called papules. For some, the itching is mild, lasting anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. Others have a reaction that can continue for a week or more. These severe reactions may require a prescription steroid cream to ease the itching.
Most of us can get relief from over-the-counter treatments such as calamine lotion, hydrocortisone or oral Benadryl.
Prevention simply means avoiding tall uncut grass and weeds where the chiggers like to hang out. Insect repellents generally work, and so do techniques for preventing the chiggers from getting on your skin.
Consider tucking the cuffs of your pants into your boots and wearing tight-knit fabrics that prevent chiggers from getting through your clothing.
Chiggers do not attach themselves to your skin like ticks do and are easily brushed off with the hand. Since the chigger spends anywhere from three to four hours searching for areas on your body where the skin is thin, you have plenty of time to jump in the shower or bath and thoroughly wash your skin surface.
Chiggers are only parasitic during the larval stage. Adults are harmless to humans.
The origin of the word “chigger” is etymologically interesting. It is believed that the names of two species of sand fleas, Chigoes and Jiggers, found only in the tropics and subtropics, were blended to describe the chigger.
Unlike sand fleas that can cause excruciating foot conditions, the chigger is generally considered rather harmless. The one exception to this rule is a chigger found in East and Southeast Asia that can cause a form of typhus that can be severe.
Finally, I take no particular joy in debunking so-called “old wives’ tales.” They have a certain charm, yet they can also present a danger to one’s well-being. Superstitions are fun to talk about, but you are better prepared to deal with reality when armed with the facts.
“The truth will set you free,” generally!
Citations are available upon request.