10 best and cheapest ways to avoid chiggers in South America.

by Gunnar Engblom on March 22, 2009

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What are chiggers anyway?

You don’t see chiggers. They can be a serious nuisance, because the itch is diabolic. I have seen severe infections after scratching chigger bites. For some people the itch goes on for a week!
So what are they? Actually, they are more than one sort – and that is the reason why there are so many conceptions and misconceptions about chiggers. Chiggers are normally referring to the larval stage of microscopic Trombiculidae mites (thus a small arachnid) and they bite but do not dig under the skin. However, a similarly named evil – the Chigoe flea a.k.a. as jiggerTunga penetrans is common in South America causes similar symptoms – and in this case the little flea does bury underneath the skin to eventually produce eggs and detach. Since protection against both no-see-ums is similar….let us just concentrate on that.

How to protect yourself against chiggers

While some people would buy expensive protection with Permethrin soaked garments and others will get sulphur powder to dust their entire footwear, socks and pant-legs (it comes with a distinct rotten egg odor- and will not be popular among your fellow travellers using my technique!), here is the less high tech, less messy, cheap and fool proof way to protect you against chiggers

  1. Rubber boots – Wellies. There is no better protection against the crawlies on the ground than rubber boots. Not only does chiggers have a hard time climbing the rubber shafts, but that also goes for army ants. Imagine standing in an army ant swarm without having to hop up and down while you are surrounded by the ants. Standing still there is actually a chance you may see those illusive ant following antbirds such as the Hairy-crested, White-masked and White-plumed Antbirds. But the thought of having to walk around in uncomfortable high rubber boots in warm climate is the one thing that usually put people off from my first advice. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to increase comfort. The first trick is to get inexpensive very soft rubber boots. These sell cheaply in Peru (around 15 US$) up to size 10 or 10.5 (up to size 44 European) but larger sizes are impossible to get. They don’t weigh much either and are easy to pack as the fold up.
    The fit of these cheap boots are usually quite poor, but by inserting the insoles of your sneakers you get perfect fit. Use double thin socks to lead off moisture, pre-treat your feet with anti-transpiring and powder the inside of your boots with foot powder. Whenever you are in the car or in the canoe, change to sneakers or sandals, by having these handy.
  2. Tuck in pants. The rubber boots will not be of much use if your pantlegs hang outside of your boots.
  3. Spray DEET (OFF is commonly available in Peru) on socks and boot lining. If an occasional chigger would venture above your boot shaft, this should prevent it from climbing down your boots.
  4. Spray DEET around the waist on top of the clothing and also on the bare skin at the lining of the pants. If the chiggers don’t enter to your skin from your feet, you may still get them around the waist if you brush against any branches or enter the forest.
  5. Coming back to the lodge, take a shower straight away and scrub legs and any part where the clothing has been tight i.e. private parts. Have a set of clothing reserved for after showers which you wear for your lunch and dinner. This set of clothing shall not be taken into the forest at any time.
  6. If you been in high grass or entered the dense forest off the trail (birders do that you know), you need to change clothing the next day or spray the cloths with deet in the evening. If your clothes have been washed make sure they are hung on lines with cloth-hangers. Why? Pîcture this: When your clothes finally have dried, some strong wind blows them off the line into the grass lawn totally infested with chiggers.
  7. Change socks and underwear every day. (Get these garment infested with chiggers and you will know about it.)
  8. Don’t ever walk over the clearing in sneakers or sandals – especially not if you wear socks. Without socks, don’t forget to wash of the feet and the sandals afterwards. The clearing grass is the worst for chiggers. Even worse than the forest.
  9. Don’t sit down or lie down on the leaf litter in the forest. Some early neo-tropical birders claim that the best way to look at canopy birds in with lying down on the trail. That may be, but it does involve some serious consequence.
  10. The same goes for your back pack – don’t put the back pack on the leaf litter….Think for yourself cause and effect when you try scratching your itching back at night?

Finally, two more links for more information.

  • Wiki. About the harvest mites in general and chiggers in particular
  • From Nina Bicknese, Missouri department of conservation

As from this moment, Kolibri Expeditions will provide to our clients free OFF in spray cans and rubber boots to size 43 European. If you need larger size, please consider bringing a pair from home to donate to us for the benefit of future travellers. Say no to scratching now.

Foto by Scott Zona by Creative common License on Flickr.
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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Fernando Vaca March 22, 2009 at 6:57 pm

I like your post man.


Alastair Rae March 23, 2009 at 10:49 am

Makes me itch just thinking about it. Ugh

Marvin March 23, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Great tips that should work equally well in an Arkansas pasture — and work for ticks, too. I just hate wearing that much DEET day after day, so I usually don’t and sometimes suffer the itchy consequences.

Peter March 23, 2009 at 3:11 pm

I would like to find information on exactly where in North and South America that chiggers are a problem. They are a problem in Trinidad but not in Tobago. Last week, in preparation for a trip to Puerto Rico, I spent a fruitless hour on the web trying to discover if chiggers are a problem in Puerto Rico. In the absence of that information, I did take precautions and have now returned with just a few skin lesions that look and behave like chigger bites, so maybe Puerto Rico does have chiggers, or maybe my bites are from something else. I would appreciate it if someone could identify a definitive and comprehensive source for information on the location of chigger hot spots and of locations where chiggers are absent from the landscape.

Gunnar Engblom March 23, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Fernando: How is the chigger situation at the lodge?
Alastair: Think Deet and rubber boots and the itching goes away.
Marvin: The key is to spray on your clothing. DEET should not be any worse (my suposition!) than Permethrin healthwise.
Peter. In South America anywhere below 1500m seems to be bad. However, there are local differences. Without taking precautions, I did not have any problems in SE Brazil, nor at Serra de Canastra – which is all grassland!

Klacke March 26, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Amazingly disgusting little buggers. So I guess we’d better prepare ourselves before we arrive in Peru in September.

Nice writeup !! and see you in September


Rick King October 11, 2009 at 12:32 am

Up to a week? How about 2 months!!! That was how long I was affected the first time I ran across chiggers, or the mite. After that it was more like 2-3 weeks.

Andy Murphy October 11, 2009 at 3:52 pm

These chiggers are on Long Island ,New York and probaly else where in the area. I got bitten by a cloud of these walking in the fields of Rte 51 in Eastport this August. I still have bites that itch, and they seem to continue to come once the older bites cease . I probaly have these dormant on my clothes, and I suspect that putting clothes in the washer does not get rid of the dormant ones. I have been to my doctor who gave me an injection (cortisone?) and a perscription forPermethrin 5% cream. It says one application is generally curative, but I have been through two tubes and I still have the bites. This is the second time I got these in the same field, I got them last August, so I guess I am a slow learner. They went right through my pants tucked in socks.as well as inside my heavy walking boots to infest mylegs,waist and ankles as well. Then they moved up to my back and chest.This time I think I saw them as as walked through tall grassy plants,they loooked like a cloud of pollen that landed on my clothes, but when I looked closely I sware I could see some of tiny dots moving so I brushed off as much as I could, & took a hot shower when I got home, and put my clothes in the washer. But they got me good, and I am stiil aflicted in mid October .

Gunnar Engblom October 11, 2009 at 7:55 pm

Iiiiech, Andy…that is horrible. Deet (or sulphur powder)yourself well before you go next time and where those rubber boots in the tall grass.

Philip Brody October 29, 2009 at 9:51 am

Chigger bites, about ten were on my inner thighs after walking the path photographing Dragonflies on the NPS Buxton Wood trails on Hatteras Island. Wore sneakers without bug spray and occasionally kneeled down to photograph. I knew immediately what they were and they lasted about a week with no secondary infection. I learned long ago not to get off the path in semitropical and tropical areas and that DEET and tucking socks will generally protect you. Boots of course are a big pain if they are not otherwise needed. Also never, never sit or lie down in a cow pasture even when exhausted.

P Brody

Klacke January 2, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Amazingly disgusting little buggers. So I guess we'd better prepare ourselves before we arrive in Peru in September.

Nice writeup !! and see you in September


deborahjeancohen June 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm

OH NO!!!

deborahjeancohen June 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm

OH NO!!!

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