Oak mites causing itching to DC area residents; tiny insects feed on cicadas

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DC artist Michele Banks says she started to feel itchy earlier this month after wandering around the oak trees looking for squirrels to photograph – leaving her with redness, swelling and bumps on her skin .

She said she had probably been bitten by oak mites and had had another bite since then. Although the itching has subsided after about a week, she still has swollen bumps on her shoulders.

“At first I thought they were just unusually itchy mosquito bites, but once I read about oak mites I realized that this is probably what they are,” said Ms Banks, who runs a website called Artologica. “They exactly match the description – upper body, big red welts, very itchy, little clear ooze in the center.”

While the cicadas may be gone, the itchy oak leaf mites that feed on cicada nymphs are now making their marks on DC area residents.

Dr Rhett Kent, of Forefront Dermatology in Arlington, said 60% to 90% of his patients in the past two weeks have experienced mite bites.

“I have never seen anything [before] that I could say that over 50% of the patient population had such [such] problem. So it’s pretty dramatic, ”he said, adding that the oak mites“ are definitely moving ”.

This month, other locals tweeted photos of empty shelves of anti-itch and anti-swelling drugs at local pharmacies while complaining about oak mite bites.

But insect experts are reassuring, saying the bugs should start disappearing in a few weeks.

Oak leaf gall mites or itch mites – formerly known as Pyemotes herfsi – are between 0.2 and 0.8 mm in length, making them “practically microscopic,” says Floyd Shockley, head of collections in the department. entomology from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Although these mites are always present, they become “particularly abundant” at times and places where there is a periodic emergence of cicada brood, he said.

Female cicadas lay their eggs in June, which hatch in August and early September, Mr Shockley said.

The presence of oak mites in the district or in Virginia was not actually confirmed by any samples, said Eric Day of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the Department of Entomology at State University.

But Mr Shockley said he can confirm oak mites are found in the DC area, although no samples have been sent for identification to his knowledge.

“In fact, they are widespread throughout most of the United States, closely following the distribution of oak species as they feed on the immature of a number of oak-specialized insects,” he said. , noting a variety of oak mite species.

He said the mites are expected to start disappearing in September when the nymphs, or immature insects, drop to the ground and burrow underground, depleting the mites of their food source as the cold weather sets in.

The mites could fall on people from trees or be blown away.

While it’s difficult to know for sure what type of insect has bit a person, Mr Shockley said oak mite bites are similar to a “bad case” of chiggers, also known as red bugs or crop mites, but tend to be near the head. and on the arms rather than the lower body.

The bites cause small bumps that turn into itchy blisters and can last for about two weeks. They can turn into painful and itchy rashes when there are many.

“Some people have very severe bites, and some people have very light bites, so there is a broad spectrum of response,” said Dr. Kent, the dermatologist. “But in the case of oak mites, almost everyone has exuberant redness, a few blisters in the center. So this is definitely a more serious type of end-of-spectrum bite that we’re facing right now. “

Mr Schockley said the best way to avoid these bites is to not hang around under the oak trees for the next three to six weeks – advice Ms Banks is taking.

“I still take pictures of squirrels most of the time, but I try to avoid oaks,” the full-time artist said. “Fortunately, the parks I go to have walnut and wicker orange trees as well, and squirrels like those too.”

People are turning to over-the-counter hydrocortisone to treat bites, but Dr Kent said the drugs are not strong enough for “more robust reactions.”

For more severe reactions, he recommends a prescription-grade topical steroid along with non-sedating oral antihistamines such as Allegra or Zyrtec for stings that turn into rashes.

Oak mite bites are not expected to be a major problem until 2038, when the next cicada emergence is expected, Mr Shockley said, noting that it is possible that outbreaks involving other insects including mites could feed occur.

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