Mites: So, You Think You Have Mites?

It is an altogether too common experience. Someone in your office spent some time working around the filing cabinets and walked away complaining that something had "bitten" him while he was over in that area. Pretty soon someone else feels the biting and crawling sensations on their skin, and another, and another. Someone mentions "paper mites", and the word is out that the office needs to be sprayed to get rid of the darned things.

The receptionist went home that night, told her husband about the hordes of mites attacking them at the office, and the next thing you know HE is infested too, a victim of the mites jumping off his wife and onto him as they talked. So, now he's scratching, and maybe the kids even get infested.

Sound outlandish? Perhaps, but it is a scenario played out every day in this country, and one that professional pest control companies are called to resolve on a regular basis. Should the pest control technician come out and begin by spraying the place? Absolutely NOT. That, in reality, is in violation of federal laws on the use of pesticides, which require that the pest itself be collected and identified prior to any application of a pesticide.

Are there really mites that could attack people in their office or their home? Well, certainly, and they may be very common. However, around one half of the time that professionals are consulted to control mites in a structure - even when the diagnosis that mites were present was made by a physician - there are no mites there. The cause of the person's discomfort may be due to some other bug pest, or quite often it is generated by their own imagination, a condition clinically called "Delusions of Parasitosis".

Paper Mites!!

Let's remove one urban legend right up front - Paper Mites! There simply is no living organism that is called a "paper mite", and yet these critters are consistently blamed for causing bites or allergies on people. Even professional medical people often diagnose a cause of someone's skin rash or bites as paper mites.

Where this began has been attributed several times to the tiny flecks of paper that would sift off of packaging as workers moved things around. These flecks would land on the hands or arms, perhaps cause itching or irritation, and began to be called "paper mites" as a joke. Unfortunately, the joke took on a life of its own.

What kinds of mites could be in buildings?

There are a number of kinds of mites that routinely do occur in homes or workplaces. In fact, most people carry mites around on them all the time without realizing it. Most of us have microscopic mites called Follicle Mites living in our pores and at the base of hairs. They are a natural part of our own personal ecosystem, and generally are never detected.

But, there are many other mites that could well be living with you, and they can cause effects ranging from annoying to severe. In general, perhaps, we could place these mites into one of two groups:

  1. those that cause irritation and allergic responses
  2. those that feed on us

What kinds of mites actually BITE people?

Probably the most common mites that will occur in structures, that actually do bite humans, are the mites associated with birds and rodents. These are, appropriately, called "bird mites" or "rat mites", and if you have birds nesting or roosting on the structure, or rodents populating the building, you can assume they have brought some of their nasty parasites with them. This becomes a particular problem when the birds finally leave or the rodents are removed in a rodent control program.

One common cause of bird mites coincides with the annual building of huge numbers of mud nests, by swallows, under the eaves or other overhangs of buildings. These birds and their babies are protected by law, and you may just have to wait them out. Large gatherings of pigeons on building ledges or rooftops also may seed the structure with their mites, that methodically crawl down into the living areas or work areas, seeking other warm bodies to attack.

Rat mites, the Tropical Rat Mite in particular, is a common associate of our three domestic rodents - the House Mouse, Roof Rat, and Norway Rat. Keeping these pests out of our buildings is a vital step in keeping their parasites out too, and the removal of a large population of rodents should take into consideration the possible need for parasite control as well.

Another kind of mite that very definitely bites humans is called the Scabies Mite, or mange mite. This microscopic parasite burrows into the skin or feeds on top of it, causing skin rashes and intense itching. However, there currently is no evidence that they can be transmitted by any means other than close personal contact, so all recommendations are that pesticide applications to the area will do no good and should not be done. Scabies is a problem for a physician to control.

What are some of the mites that cause allergic reactions?

Without a doubt, the most common of these has to be the lowly Dust Mite. Unlike "paper mites", these guys are NOT a myth, and in fact may be present in vast numbers in a building. They are scavengers, and along with various kinds of organic junk they find to eat, their main diet consists of tiny flakes of dried skin - called "dander". There is an old expression that goes "Now, don't get your dander up", meaning don't get unnecessarily upset, but I'm not quite sure how it relates.

These microscopic mites crawl over surfaces, feeding on the bits of organic material, and are so small they easily get blown around in wind drafts. Like all arthropods, they also shed their exoskeleton regularly, and this material is even more likely to become airborne and inhaled, causing large numbers of people to suffer severe allergic responses to it.

Other common mites are those that feed on molds or damp foods, such as Mold Mites, Grain Mites, Cheese Mites, and Cereal Mites. It is not uncommon to actually find PILES of Grain Mites in a cupboard or under the sink, as a result of a large number of them finding some dampness and the resulting mildew growth as food. You might even find an old, forgotten dried salami, with a coating of hundreds of thousands of the mites crawling around on it.

When these microscopic, light colored mites find themselves on our arm, they crawl around. We can feel it, but they may be virtually invisible, so our imagination begins to work and we begin to scratch, and someone reinforces it by saying something is eating you, and away we go.

Any other mites we need to know about?

But of course! The group that includes all the mites currently hosts over 45,000 different kinds, and estimates are that there probably are over 1 million species. They occupy incredibly diverse environmental niches. One of these niches is on plants, and probably the most common mites you will have on your property will be the plant mites - in particular those called "spider mites".

Spider Mites - also called "red spider" - are nasty little parasites of plants, and if you work in your garden or bring plant material indoors you may be bringing the mites in as well. While they do not bite animals they still may cause itching and sensitivity if they get onto your skin.

Another mite that could be acquired from contact with plant material is our beloved "chigger", and for those who live in parts of the country or the world where chiggers also live, you likely are already on intimate speaking terms with chiggers. These guys are the early stages of a larger, predatory mite, but they like to burrow into the skin around the ankles for awhile, and once they leave the site begins to itch - and itch - and itch some more. Intense itching may last for over a week, until your immune system finally calms down and you stop digging at the spots.

What are some other causes of Itching besides Mites?

There are some other bug-type causes, and there also are lots of non-bug causes. Let's take a look at both.

Bug-related: several tiny little insects are common in homes or offices, and may end up crawling on your arm. These could be "book lice" (which are not really lice), springtails, or thrips. Let's take a quick look at them.

Book Lice are most properly called Psocids, and like the Mold Mites they feed commonly on molds and mildew growing on damp surfaces. They also may get into foods, in particular those that have been stored too long and may be somewhat deteriorated. Controlling the dampness and maintaining the cupboards with fresh food and food in sealed containers is a good first step in their control.

Thrips are plant pests. They are tiny little flying critters that cause problems on flowers and foliage in the garden. Their mouths are like little razors, and if they were on your skin they might actually poke you, causing you to feel a sharp pin-prick. However, they do not feed on humans (unless chlorophyll is a major part of your biological makeup) and they are controlled by controlling the plant problems.

Springtails are common, particularly in the spring, because they, like so many others, like dampness and the molds growing on damp surfaces. These tiny bugs get their name from the fact that they can jump quickly when they need to move in a hurry. They have a little device attached to the tip of their abdomen, called a furcula, and when they snap this down onto a surface they bounce into the air. Of course, when they snap it down onto your arm you may feel it, although once again you simply are not being bitten.

If you contact a licensed Pest Management company they may be able to identify which of these causes you are dealing with. Their best first step is to begin sampling the environment, often with sticky glue pads, to try to capture some of the offenders. These glue pads can then be examined under high magnification to determine, if any bugs are there, just what they are. If they turn out to be mites then they can be identified as to the kind of mite, important since the control measures differ for the different kinds.

All of the experts in the field of Professional Pest Management, as well as regulatory officials who license this industry, recommend that NO applications of pesticides be made until the pest is identified as actually present. This is logical, for your health as well as for the most effective control program.

Okay, they couldn't find any bugs. What else could it be?

There are many identified causes of itching, crawling sensations that have nothing to do with insects or mites. Again, a common cause is called Delusions of Parasitosis, where it is a mistaken belief that bugs are crawling on you, and this may be hard to deal with. There are many reasons this may occur, but none of the reasons is within the realm of the duties of a pest management professional, and a physician needs to be involved.

Other possibilities that have been identified, that may cause itching sensations, include:

  • Dry air and the static buildup, causing hairs on the skin to move
  • Dust particles and other tiny material in the air, perhaps from air conditioning or heating ducts, or dusty carpets
  • Reactions to cosmetics or soaps, particularly if changes have occurred
  • Allergic reactions to other, non-biological, materials
  • Use of drugs, such as cocaine or amphetamines
  • Medical conditions
  • Deficiencies in the diet

If the pest management professional is unable, with a diligent effort, to find any mites or other possible insect-related causes for the problem, then other possibilities must be taken into account, and the appropriate steps taken to identify them.

This can be an intensely frustrating time for both the victim (you) and the professionals called to help you, or it might be one that is easily identified with the use of good inspection tools. However, it is very important to make sure the correct cause is determined, and that a pesticide application is not made when bugs may not be present.