Itch mites, oftentimes mistaken for chiggers, are a scourge that Suzie Ward of Cheatham County believes she has encountered first hand. It’s hard to know for sure, experts say, because the tiny biters are often not seen and leave little evidence except redness, bumps and serious itching. The affliction is showing up in urban areas, too. It may be due to the recent pin oak trees that have become popular additions in many developments, including Nashville.

Itch Mites affecting Nashville Residents

“They looked like chigger bites. But I’ve had chigger bites all my life and these were not biting in the places chiggers bite,” said Ward. Rather than around her waistband and other chigger-favored locales where clothing clamps tightly on the body, dozens of angry red spots appeared on her neck, around an ear, on her legs and arms. Itch mites are familiar to entomologists and health departments that have dealt with massive outbreaks, including one in 2004 in Crawford County, Kansas. The microscopic creatures were found to be the likely culprit that set more than half the county’s 38,242 people scratching, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Traditionally, suspected itch mites bite reports were limited to an individual case here and there, often in rural areas, as in Ward’s situation, officials say. But health departments in urban areas have gotten calls in larger numbers in recent years. “It’s nothing to get real upset about. The thing is to find the source and get rid of it,” said Robert Wirtz, CDC entomology branch chief in Atlanta.
Hundreds of types of mites inhabit the world, he said, and the ones annoying humans have earned common names specific to whatever item they might have been clinging to when someone encountered them. They include straw, poultry, vanilla bean, oak gall and bird mites.
The mighty itchiness can strike at harvest time on farms, and when urban folks are gathering leaves or using hay, corn or other grains for holiday and seasonal décor. The goods can carry particular mite species, which are at work helping control crop insects.

What Exactly Are Itch Mites?

Itch mites, which are not insects, are related to spiders and ticks. One of the most studied are scabies mites, which burrow into the skin and lay eggs. They can pass from person to person and are difficult to get rid of. Dust mites aren’t interested in humans, except to feed on their skin once it’s flaked off. Chiggers, hot weather creatures, are mites whose larva will bite a person or another animal. Its saliva then dissolves tissue into a liquid that it drinks. There’s also widespread “delusional parasitosis” at times, in which people decide mites are afoot and on them, said Abelardo Moncayo, state medical entomologist with the Tennessee Department of Health.
It’s unusual for actual mite bite cases to be confirmed because the itch tends to show up after the critter is gone, so there’s no specimen to find and identify. Moncayo has, however, had the somewhat pleasant situation of confirming a case of bird mites before.
“I’m happy it’s something legitimate, and they’re happy as well,” he said.
A person can contract bird mites by handling a fresh bird nest, or the mites might spread into a home after a bird roosts in a chimney.

For months, Ward was puzzled as well as maddened by her biters

The speech and language pathologist had attacks in September and again in recent weeks. She considered lice, bedbugs and fleas but could find no evidence of them, and treatments made no difference.
Eventually, she traced her raging discomfort to hours after she would go outside and prune trees around her house. She thinks her tormentor was likely oak gall mites, which have borne the blame at times elsewhere.
In the Kansas case, researchers found galls on oak leaves had been infested with oak gall mites.
The European species probably was preying on gall-making midge larvae on the leaves, according to a CDC report. An estimated 16,000 mites can fall from one leaf gall. They also get carried on the wind to people gathered for instance, at a local college’s football game.
The frequent landscaping use of pin oak trees in urban settings, could make outbreaks more likely, the report said. The tree’s popularity has blossomed over the years since they’re fast growing for an oak. They are medium height and display bronze and red leaves in autumn.
Spraying trees with chemical pesticides is not effective, since the galls protect the mites, the CDC reported.
Washing and ridding one’s home of any object carrying mites is the best remedy, according to experts and Ward.
“When I began taking precautions, that’s when it stopped, she said. “I began to wash my hair every time I came inside, and my clothes. By the time you get the bites, it’s too late to wash them off.”
Contact Anne Paine at  615-259-8071 or apaine@tennessean.com