Local residents are falling prey to a mysterious rash of bug bites and, as of Monday, scientists and state officials still weren’t certain of the culprit.
The primary suspect is the oak leaf gall itch mite causing nickel to quarter-sized bumps on itchy victims across northern Illinois.
Dr. Frederic Miller, entomology research associate at the Morton Arboretum, said the pattern of bites in Illinois mirrors an outbreak of itch mites that attacked Kansas and Nebraska in the fall of 2004.
There, scientists identified the tiny pests as the oak leaf gall, an intrusive bug 1/125 of an inch in size, which enters abnormal growths on oak trees called galls in search of fly larvae, called midges, to eat, according to the Kansas State University research and extension.
The female mite uses a neurotoxin in her saliva to paralyze prey before feasting. That same toxin causes itchiness in humans.
“We’re kind of learning as we go along,” said Miller, who has never seen anything like this in his 20 years in Illinois. “It’s hard to speculate why they’re biting humans; that’s what’s puzzling about it.”
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), the mites drop off oak trees when their food source runs out and sometimes accidentally fall on humans. The mites can’t live indoors because they need insect larvae to survive.
Melanie Arnold, spokeswoman for the IDPH, said the itch mite species was yet to be identified as of Monday.
Sticky traps were set to catch the pests and some samples were caught, allowing scientists to identify the genus as pyemotes.
“We believe it’s the oak gall itch mite and [discovering the genus] confirms we’re on the right track.”
Arnold said it’s difficult to speculate when the species will be identified; it depends on when the IDPH can obtain a quality sample directly off a tree leaf.
Identifying the species involves counting the number of hairs on the mite with a microscope, a task made more difficult by the use of sticky traps, which tend to remove the hairs.
The IDPH sent a specimen to an entomologist at the University of Nebraska who is currently trying to identify it. Only a few people in the country can identify a mite’s species, Arnold said. There are more than 45,000 different species of mites, according to an IDPH press release.
Only in a few rare cases has a person been hospitalized from the bites and there is no known instance of death from itch mite bites, according to the release.
“We haven’t been made aware of any problems [in Forest Park] in regards to the itch mite,” Mike Boyle, director of Public Health and Safety for Forest Park said. “It doesn’t carry any diseases, and I’m not aware of any calls to my department on how to abate the situation.”
Mark Janopoulos, arborist and superintendent of operations for River Forest, said just about everyone in the village’s forestry department has at least a few bites. He speculated the itch mites traveled west to Illinois on winds from Kansas and Nebraska.
Janopoulos said the bite feels similar to poison ivy rash, with an intense itching and a welt the size of a quarter.
“The more you scratch them, the more they seem to itch,” he said. “I’ve got one on my shin that’s driving me crazy.”
Doug Deuchler, 60, an Oak Park resident who works part-time at the Brookfield Zoo and is a contributing writer for the Forest Park Review said he got about eight bites, probably while working at the zoo. A few employees there have fallen ill from the bites, feeling dizzy and nauseous.
“They’re bizarre,” Deuchler said describing the wounds. “A number of guys [at the zoo] have been complaining about them.”
Olga Solares, senior director of marketing and public relations at West Suburban Medical Center, feels the media is blowing the itch mite outbreak out of proportion. She claimed only two patients with the bites showed up at the hospital’s emergency room as of Thursday.
The hospital uses a call center and Solares said determining the number of patient phone calls for bug bites in the past week would be difficult.
Lucy Hammerberg, an emergency room physician at West Suburban, said she treated two patients with bites at the hospital in the past week, both on Saturday, Aug. 11.
Hydrocortisone cream and Benadryl are the recommended treatment for the bites, she said.
Dr. Craig Goldstein, ER physician at Rush Oak Park Hospital, said an average of about four people per day came in last week with the bites. The majority of itch mite victims in the hospital are employees, not the patients.
“I think a lot of people learned from the papers and TV that you can treat this with over the counter medications,” he said in speculation of why so few bite patients have showed up at the hospital. “For the patients to see me, they’ve got to make a trip to the hospital, register to be seen, there’s the expense, for me to tell them what most people have already figured out.”
Goldstein recommends Claritin to treat the bites because it only requires one dose a day and doesn’t cause drowsiness, as opposed to Benadryl, which is taken every four hours and causes drowsiness.
He said it’s only necessary to see doctor if the bite is infected, indicated by a rise in temperature, pus and red streaks on your arms going towards the chest.