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Bytes on Bites February 10, 2010

Posted by Sree in Trek, Western Ghats.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

          My main inspiration for this blog is a tiny insect called Chigger. After my last Western Ghats trek, I suffered for nearly 2 months from multiple infections due to Chigger bites. Then I researched on the net and gathered some useful material which I will be sharing here.

         The primary biting animals of Western Ghats are Leech, Chigger, Ticks and Mosquitoes. The high temperature and humidity of the Western Ghats and abundant flora and fauna helps these animals thrive. Out of these Ticks and Mosquitoes may even carry deadly diseases. But they appear to be of lesser menace and even they are around, you can see them and take precautionary measures to avoid them. Till now, I personally haven’t had much trouble from them.

          Leeches are the most talked about blood-feeding animals in Western Ghats. Land leeches are the commonly found variety here. These tiny (?) heat seeking annelids are everywhere in wet season and will attack all warm blooded animals (including us!). They bite to any exposed skin sometimes over the thin cloth also. Generally you won’t feel the bite and after sucking enough blood (for 20-30 mins) it will drop off. However they secrete an anti-clotting enzyme which ensures that the blood keeps flowing from the wound for quite some time.Leeches galore on my leg

          We have been using different methods to get rid of leeches. Tobacco, salt, Neem oil, deodorant spray, lit cigarette or brute force – are the ways used to remove them from the skin. None of these are advisable as leech will empty out its stomach and then drop off. It can cause infection. The best way to remove a leech is provided in Wild Madagascar site. Excerpts are here:

  1. Identify the anterior (oral) sucker which will be found at the small end of the leech.
  2. Put your finger on your skin adjacent to the oral sucker
  3. Gently but firmly slide your finger toward the wound where the leech is feeding. Using your fingernail, push the sucker sideways away from your skin.
  4. Once you have dislodged the oral sucker, quickly detach the posterior (rear) sucker (the fat end of the leech). Try flicking the leech or proding with your fingernail. As you work to remove the leech, it will attempt to reattach itself.

However, once leech makes wound it will take a week to heal and during that time it will itch like hell. Scratching the wound will lead to secondary infection.

          So prevention is anytime better than cure. During our last trek to Are Betta (Dec 09) we tried another method. We sprayed the painkiller spray on shoes, socks part of pants near ankles. This effectively repelled the leeches. We did reapply the spray every half hour, but the result was amazing. After hiking in a heavily leech infested forest, I didn’t have a single leech bite!!

          Chiggers, also called as harvest mites (Unugu in Kannada) are the most troublesome of biting insects. Compared to Chiggers, Leeches are saints!

          Chigger larvae which are about 0.2 mm are really difficult to spot. They are typically present in grass blades and thick vegetation. Once the larvae are on the skin, they inject an enzyme which will dissolve the skin. They feed on the tiny parts of skin. So technically speaking, they do not bite! The hole in the skin is called stylostome which causes amazingly bad irritation and swelling.

          The beauty of this is that you won’t know whether you were bitten by Chiggers until a day or two. The larvae feeds for a day or two and drops off. Then the swelling begins like chicken pox and itching starts. It’s basically our body reacting to the damage caused. If you scratch, it will lead to secondary infection which is really painful. In the last trek, I got nearly three dozen chigger bites and suffered for nearly two months due to multiple infections. I researched on material available on net for prevention and cure. Armed Forces (US) Pest Management Board’s Technical Guide No.36 has really good info on this.

          Not exposing the skin to Chiggers is the best way to prevent them. I wore shorts during last trek which was the main reason for my suffering. So covering the leg completely by tucking the pants inside the socks seems like good option. DEET is reported to repel Chiggers. DEET is a widely available insect repellent in US, unfortunately not available in India. Permethrin also repels Chiggers to a limited extent. There is a product called CHIGG-AWAY (again available in US only) to repel Chiggers. The main ingredient in this product is Sulfur.

          So in upcoming trek to Western Ghats, I am planning experiment by applying powdered Sulfur on legs!

          Washing the affected areas by hot water and strong soap (like Rin or Tide) soon after the day’s hike is a very effective way of getting rid of Chiggers. Socks and pants may also have Chiggers and its advisable to discard them. So carry extra pair of pants and socks on hike.

          However, once the Chigger has bitten you, there is no known cure for it. I used some skin creams, moisturizers, petroleum jelly, coconut oil… everything gives short relief from itching. When secondary infection started, my doctor prescribed a steroid – Mometasone Furoate which helped to reduce the infection.

          But believe me, Chiggers are indeed a nightmare!



1. Bharata - February 11, 2010

A point to note is that chigger bite doesn’t result in same reaction in everybody. For some it causes severe reaction (months of itching, secondary infections), for some only mild reaction (days of itching) and for fortunate ones none. I have seen all categories of people!

2. ;-p r a b u! - February 13, 2010

Incidentally, I have had leech bites which have lasted ages longer and have left scars. I think every bite is tailor-made for the recipient! 🙂

There are a few points, though:

“The Leech Stances”
1) ‘exploratory’ – leech perches with its hind sucker, body is up, relaxed, occasionally changing directions, sensing potential blood.
2) ‘alert’ – again attached with its hind sucker, body erect, right up. ah! he has sensed (heat) / smelled blood.
3) ‘loop’ – attach with anterior sucker, drag body up, attach hind sucker close to where anterior sucker was, release anterior sucker, attach to closest distance sensed towards the potential prey — the gait ?

By far the loop stance is the best time to flick a leech away because it is already releasing its anterior triple-jaw and the hind sucker is not firmly rested yet!

Also, leeches are not precision devices and get to the host pretty much by trial and error. That is probably why ‘trek leaders’ typically have lesser bites. they just tip off leeches about the trailing trekkers and leeches correct all their trial-errors (trying to attach to the leader) by the time the rest arrive! 🙂

So some simple suggestions:
1. fight for that leader spot in treks
2. flick the leech when it is on the move

(excerpt from Herman’s pages)

3. Peaks of Shiradi « Freedom of the Hills - February 28, 2010

[…] of elephant grass! I was wearing shorts that day, and had nice cuts on the legs not to mention the chigger attack.      But the best trail was the Ombattu Gudda trail on 1st day where the altitude gain […]

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