Forget chiggers, folks; those are lone star tick larvae making you itch

09/15/2012 5:00 PM |

CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL PHOTO | Lone star ticks in different stages of their life cycle, with newly hatched larva at right.

Anecdotal evidence suggests there may be a surge in the population of lone star tick larvae in the region, including Shelter Island. People who walk through a cluster of these freshly hatched ticks won’t know it until they start to itch and find red welts all over themselves — and perhaps in the center of a few of those welts they’ll notice a dot so tiny it’s smaller than a period on this page.

Hello, lone star larvae.

The good news is that the itching and the red welts are an allergic reaction to the tick’s saliva, not a symptom of some mysterious and terrible systemic infection. The welts and itching will go away but long after your ticks are gone; sometimes it takes a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, an anti-itch cream helps.
Even better news, larval lone star ticks are not known to carry any tick-borne diseases.

Lately, stories have been circulating of people finding welts all over themselves. Often they never notice any tiny ticks, all of which may have dropped off by the time the welts appear. These folks may be told by doctors or pharmacists that they’ve been bitten by chiggers.

We don’t have chiggers here, according to Scott Campbell, a Shelter Island resident and entomologist who heads the Suffolk County Department of Health Services Arthropod Borne Disease Laboratory. Since he went to work for the county in 1995, he says he’s never found a chigger anywhere on Long Island and he’s been looking. Chiggers are found to the south and west, in warmer climates, he says.

Lone star larvae begin to hatch in July and are active through late summer and into October. Chiggers are active earlier in the spring and into the summer, especially after wet weather. They lay scattered eggs, 15 to 50 a day in the soil. Adult lone star females lay hundreds of eggs in clusters. “That’s why people are coming in with dozens of bites,” Dr. Campbell said.

What to do? Besides the anti-itch cream, put all affected clothing and bedding in a hot dryer for 15 or 20 minutes to kill any live ticks. The ticks on your body will all fall off after feeding. Those that fall off in your house will die from dessication so they are not a health threat. Dr. Campbell said using permethrin cream is not necessary although it is one of the protocols described on some web sites  for lone star infestations.

Take preventative measures, including treating clothing with a permethrin-based pesticide and using repellents on your skin. Lone stars can survive in drier, hotter environments than other ticks so it may be harder to avoid the places they might be. Keeping clear of heavy brush and leaves and long grass works pretty well for dog ticks and deer ticks but it seems to be no guarantee the lone stars won’t find you.

It may not make it any easier to know you’ve been bitten by lone star larvae and not chiggers. But it is good to know, isn’t it, all that itching doesn’t mean you’re still infested with bugs, whether ticks or chiggers or any other little horrors?

This originally appeared as an editorial appeared in the September 6, 2012 Shelter Island Reporter, a Times Review newspaper.

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