Mystery Itch Has Chicagoans Scratching Their Heads

Health officials believe a tiny mite may be to blame.

ByABC News via logo
August 16, 2007, 11:09 AM

Aug. 16, 2007 — -- The Illinois Department of Health is searching for a mystery insect that may be behind a rash outbreak in the Chicago area that's leaving people scratching their heads and everything else.

It's been difficult to identify the bug because people don't feel the bites until red, swollen, itchy welts show up later.

"They looked like pimples and I wanted to pop them," said 17-year-old Alexa Dulleck.

Another victim of the bites Michael Gustades had bites all over his back. "They're big and swollen," he said.

Even a doctor at a Chicago hospital wasn't immune. "You don't feel yourself getting stung," said Rob Rifenberg of Resurrection Hospital.

Experts think the biting insects might be the Oakleaf Itch mite, which created a similar itch outbreak in Kansas and Nebraska in 2004.

Scientists believe the mites originally came from Central Europe. They can travel on flying insects or drift on wind currents because they're invisible to us.

Ten to 16 hours after being bitten, people develop an allergic reaction to the mites' saliva and the itchy bumps appear.

Though infected people have been alarmed, health officials say there is no real risk of serious health problems.

"For this syndrome we're seeing, there's not a risk that it's contagious to others or that there's really an infectious disease consequence from it," said Craig Conover of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Health officials say that people should wear long sleeves when outside, shower after being outside and wash your clothes. An antihistamine can reduce rashes. And finally, they say to avoid scratching because it can cause an infection.

Authorities have set out sticky traps to try and catch the mystery bug, with no luck so far, leaving Dulleck and hundreds of others itching for an answer.

"The itching will not stop," she said. "They itch like crazy."