Does Nail Polish Banish the Itch from Chigger Bites?

This Folklore Remedy's Been Around For Years But is it Effective?

Woman's hands applying nail polish.
Getty Images/Jan Scherders

If you've ever experienced the torture that is chigger bite itch, you've probably tried anything and everything to make it stop. Desperate times call for desperate Google searches, which may have led you to try putting nail polish on the bite to banish the awful itch. This folklore remedy has been around for ages but is nail polish really an effective treatment for chigger bites? The short answer is no. The science behind chigger bites explains why.

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're found in tall grassy areas around the world, and their bites plague people, pets, and other assorted animals in the spring, summer, and fall seasons when we're outside in backyards or rural areas.

Like ticks, chiggers are opportunistic parasites that grab onto any host that happens to wander by. Unlike ticks, chiggers don't embed themselves in the skin. Instead, they target areas where clothing is tight and then grab hold of a hair follicle or skin pore. Chiggers aren't adept at penetrating the skin, so they tend to prefer areas of the body where the skin is soft and supple, which explains why you're most likely to find chigger bites on your ankles, behind your knees, along your waistline, or in your armpits.

Chigger Bite Chemistry

Once the chigger has secured itself to a hair follicle, it pierces the skin and releases saliva which is loaded with digestive enzymes. These enzymes effectively liquefy skin tissue, making it easier for the chigger to feed.

A healthy human immune system will quickly detect the invasion and take defensive measures, forming a red raised bump, called a papule, at the site of each chigger bite. Chiggers use the wall of this round welt (called a 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. They make out much better on hosts with fur which allows them to get a good grip and feed at a leisurely pace. Chiggers rarely have the chance to hang around very long on a human host. The slightest touch can dislodge them so if they haven't been brushed away when you remove your clothing, they'll likely get washed down the drain the next time you shower.

Why Nail Polish Won't Take the Itch out of Chigger Bites

A bit of basic chigger biology explains why remedies like nail polish or Vaseline won't work to alleviate the misery of chigger bites. There's a misconception that bright red spot in the center of the bite is the chigger itself. It's not. That's the stylostome which only starts itching like mad four to six hours after the chigger bites.

Although applying nail polish or Vaseline might temporarily soothe itching, you aren't suffocating anything by coating the bite, nor are you killing anything by applying alcohol or any other chemical substance. The red, raised bump you're scratching is nothing more than your own skin trying to heal itself. While chigger bites can itch for up to 10 days as your body battles the foreign substances injected by the chigger, the varmints themselves are long gone.

Avoid Infection

Although bites from Trombicula chiggers are annoying and painful, fortunately, they aren't associated with the transmission of disease. The primary danger posed by chigger bites is the potential for infection—especially if you keep scratching them.

The best treatment for a chigger bite is the same treatment you'd use for any small cut or rash. Keep the bite region clean. Wash the area with soap and warm water, and try not to scratch the bumps. Applying antiseptic to any welts, followed by an over-the-counter anti-itch product or antihistamine creams, hydrocortisone, or calamine lotion can aid in the healing process.

Home Remedies for Itching

A wide variety of home remedies can be applied to the welts to help alleviate itching:

  • A saline solution mixed with aloe vera can take away some of the itch. Mix up a batch, put it in a spray bottle, and use as needed.
  • Applying a paste of baking soda and water has been known to keep itching at bay.
  • Combine mentholated rub and salt to form a paste and apply it during a pre-bedtime shower. It might sting on application but stopping the itch overnight should balance out any minor discomfort.

Of course, you may find that the chiggers have bitten certain tender areas where topical treatments are not appropriate. If you've been bitten below the belt, cold compresses and oral antihistamines are your best bet for itch relief.

Prevention

Topical repellents such as permethrin (sold under the brand name "Nix") and dimethyl phthalate have been proven an effective defense against bites but the best way to avoid chigger bite itch is to avoid chigger bites in the first place. If you think your yard may be infested, take steps to get rid of chiggers. If possible, avoid chigger habitats such as scrub vegetation and tall grass in rural areas. If you have to be where chiggers are likely to dwell, dress appropriately. Long pants and long-sleeved shirts are best to fend off a variety of biting insects. When you get back from being outdoors, take a long soapy shower and launder your clothing.

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