Across the region, residents are noticing these unfamiliar bites, mostly on their upper bodies, and are freaking out. They are rushing to doctors for help, pleading for a cure to the painful itching.
Gene Kritsky, the dean of behavioral and natural sciences at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, has an explanation: These microscopic mites are feeding on the billions of cicada eggs produced across the D.C. region and dropping out of trees. If you happen to be under or near these oak trees, those mites may land on you and bite.
“I want to let people know they’re not crazy,” Kritsky said. “It’s a phenomenon related to cicadas being there, and it will dissipate. And eventually you won’t have it next year, because the cicadas will not be emerging.”
The bites are mostly just a nuisance, experts said, but it is important to see a doctor if you believe you are having a severe reaction.
Many Arlington residents recently turned to the Facebook group “Arlington Neighbors Helping Each Other Through Covid-19” to crowdsource answers to these unfamiliar bites, ARLNow reported. On Sunday, one person posed the question: “Anyone else finding that they’re getting bit by something while outdoors that is leaving a lingering mark?” More than 200 people have responded, detailing their battles.
Some received prescription-strength anti-itch cream and antibiotics. One person replied saying they called exterminators, convinced they were suffering from bed bugs. Many posted photos comparing the location and characteristics of their bites.
Kennedy Smith, 63, has been active in the group and was determined to figure out what caused the four itchy bites on her back.
“I have been like everybody else thinking: ‘What the heck is going on? This is too extreme to be a mosquito bite,’” Smith said. “They’re insanely itchy. It’s like poison-ivy itchy. As if the year wasn’t strange enough already.”
Another Arlington resident said she saw the three large, warm welts with “tendrils” on her leg, breast and rear and thought she was having an adverse reaction to the medications she recently received for Lyme disease. She thought: “What is this thing growing on my butt?” She rushed to her dermatologist, who suggested it was simply a bad reaction to a bug bite.
Now, she thinks the oak leaf itch mite was the culprit. She has heard how the mites can be carried by the wind and land on humans and thinks her choice of attire, a sundress, may be to blame for the location of her bites.
“I don’t even go outside that much,” said the Arlington woman, who asked not to be named, for privacy reasons. “I have no idea how I got bit by a Lyme-disease-carrier tick and these whatever bugs.”
Adding to the mystery of the bites is the lack of familiarity among government officials. D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said at a news conference Thursday that she was not aware of these bites. The Maryland Department of Agriculture said that the insect has never had a “confirmed population” in the state and that is has not received any reports of the oak leaf itch mite.
Arlington County officials are investigating the bites, said Kurt Larrick, the assistant director of the county’s Department of Human Services.
“We don’t have a definitive diagnosis at this point, but from what we’re seeing, the smart money might be on something called pyemotes, which is a type of oak leaf itch mite,” Larrick said. “They feed on cicada eggs, so they probably have a lot of stuff to eat right about now.”
What exactly may be happening?
Oak leaf itch mites feed on larvae on oak trees. Now, they may be feasting on the cicada eggs in the trees. When the mites drop from trees, they usually land on the upper body, leaving bites on your neck, shoulders or chest.
“We do know from observational information in the later 2000s that the mites were found to be feeding on the eggs of the cicada, and then after that they were falling from trees and people in Chicago were complaining of bites,” said Raymond Cloyd, an entomology professor at Kansas State University. “It is a possibility that that has occurred again with the Brood X emergence in the East Coast.”
Oak leaf itch mite bites are “raised, red areas with a small, centralized blister,” according to research from Cloyd. He said you will feel the symptoms from oak leaf itch mites about 10 to 16 hours after they bite.
Stephen Suah, a dermatologist at Foxhall Dermatology in the District, is seeing an increasing number of patients come in with their primary concern being bug bites. The usual one or two people a week who may complain about a bug bite has now jumped to as many as four patients a day looking for help with the itchy nuisance.
Many of the bites appear to be grouped on the skin like “little pimple bites that itch like crazy,” Suah said. While Suah does not know with certainty which bug is causing his patients so much distress, he said they are similar in appearance to bites from chiggers or oak mites.
Hema Sundaram, a dermatologist in Rockville and Fairfax, has seen more than 20 patients complaining about more-significant reactions to bites.
“These are huge welts, some of them,” Sundaram said. “I haven’t seen this before this summer, no — certainly not this number of patients.”
How to avoid oak leaf itch mites and relieve itching
Even though you may want to socialize outside this summer, especially as coronavirus cases increase, experts recommend reconsidering where exactly you meet up with your friends.
You can tell there are cicada nests in an oak tree by the brown patches of leaves in the canopy. This is where female cicadas are laying eggs and where oak tree itch mites may now be feeding.
“As poetic as it is to sit under an oak tree, this may not be the summer for that,” said Noëlle Sherber, a dermatologist in the District.
Experts warn it is not possible to completely avoid oak leaf itch mites. The wind can blow these microscopic mites onto you, Cloyd said, making insect repellent ineffective. It may help to wear a hat and clothing that covers your arms and legs. Shower immediately after spending time outside and wash your clothes.
If you are bitten, the remedies are similar to treating other common bites: Avoid scratching it, use anti-itch cream, take an antihistamine or apply a cold compress or ice to the site of the bite. If the bite appears infected or you experience a fever, body aches or other adverse reactions, see a doctor.
“We were preoccupied with the cicadas this summer. … I don’t think we foresaw that oak mites would be the thing we’d all be talking about,” Sundaram said. “At this point, nothing’s going to surprise us after the events of the last year and a half.”
Julie Zauzmer and Kevin Ambrose contributed to this report.