Does Nail Polish Kill Chiggers?

Stopping the Itch from Little Red Bug Bites

Woman's hands applying nail polish.
Don't put nail polish on your chigger bites!. Getty Images/Jan Scherders

If you've ever experienced the torture that is chigger bite itch, you'll probably try almost anything to make it stop. Desperate times call for desperate Google searches, which may lead you to try a commonly touted remedy for chigger bites–the application of nail polish. Does nail polish really kill chiggers, and will it stop the itching?

Scientists tell us not to waste time putting nail polish on chigger bites. By the time the chigger bites started itching, the chiggers are long gone. A bit of basic chigger biology explains why remedies like nail polish or Vaseline won't work on chigger bites.

What Are Chiggers?

Chiggers, also known as harvest bugs or red bugs, are the tiny, red, six-legged larvae of chigger mites in the Trombicula genus. They are found in tall grassy areas around the world, and their bites plague us in the spring, summer, and fall seasons when we are outside in backyards or rural areas.

Like ticks, chiggers are opportunistic parasites that grab onto any hosts that happen to wander by. Unlike ticks, chiggers don't embed themselves in the skin. They usually crawl to where clothing is tighter and then grab hold of a hair follicle or skin pore. Furthermore, chiggers aren't good at penetrating the skin, 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.

Chigger Bite Chemistry

Once the chigger has secured itself to a hair follicle, it pierces the skin and releases some saliva, which is loaded with digestive enzymes. The enzymes effectively liquefy skin tissue, making it easier for the chigger to feed. 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 stylostome, and the chigger uses the stylostome like a drinking straw, slurping up a smoothie of skin cells.

To get a good meal, chiggers need to feed for three to four days, but 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 removed your clothing, they'll get washed down the drain the next time you shower. Chiggers fare much better on hosts with fur, where they can get a good grip and feed at a leisurely pace.

Why It Itches, and Why Nail Polish Doesn't Work

People often believe that bright red spot in the center of the bite is the chigger itself. It isn't. That's the stylostome, and about four to six hours after the chigger bites you, it will start itching like mad. And those stylostomes 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.

Although applying nail polish might temporarily stop the itching, 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.

Treatment

Fortunately, although bites from Trombicula chiggers are annoying and painful, they aren't associated with the transmission of diseases. The primary danger of chiggers is the infection of the bites, especially if you keep scratching them.

Since the chigger has left the building by the time the bites start itching, the best treatment for a chigger bite is the same treatment you would use for any small cut or rash. Keep the bite region clean. Wash your skin with soap and warm water, and try not to scratch the bumps. Apply antiseptic to any welts, and then an over-the-counter anti-itch product or creams such as or calamine lotion should help with the healing.

Stop the Itch

A wide variety of various substances can be applied to the welts to stop the itch. Home remedies reported include making a paste made out of baking soda and water, or of a mentholated rub and salt and applying it in the shower. That will sting during the application but stop the itch overnight. Soothing the itch every day can be accomplished by spraying salt water or applying aloe vera on the sores.

Of course, you may find that the chiggers have bitten certain tender areas where those treatments are not appropriate. Cold compresses and oral antihistamines can be used to ease the itching in those cases.

Prevention

Of course, your best bet for avoiding chigger bite itch is to avoid chigger bites in the first place. There are several topical repellents developed for use by the United States military that have been proven effective against chiggers, including permethrin (sold under the brand name "Nix") and dimethyl phthalate. Clothing treated with permethrin—whether you spray it on yourself or purchase bug-repellent clothing—has been proven effective at limiting the bites as well.

Failing that, avoid chigger habitats such as scrub vegetation and tall grass of rural areas. If you have to be there, dress appropriately—long pants and long-sleeved shirts are best to fend off all kinds of biting insects. When you return from outdoors, take a long soapy shower and launder your clothing.

If you think your yard is infested with them, take steps to get rid of chiggers before they bite.

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