Health Officials Struggle to Identify Source of Mysterious, 'Blistering' Bug Bites

Residents of one Virginia county have been complaining of itchy, red bug bites that stick around longer than those of your average mosquito. And, as it turns out, these bites might be linked to this year's monumental cicada season.

According to NBC Washington, residents of Arlington, Virginia started speaking up on social media to report the strange symptoms of their insect bites. Morgan Dailey and her mother, Betsy Withycombe, agreed Morgan's bite "[didn't] look right," which prompted them to post about it online. "It started to grow and it swelled, and then I was at work one day and I noticed that it was blistering," Dailey told the news outlet.

"We have five children," added Withycombe. "I've seen a lot of different types of bites. This looks unlike anything I had ever seen before."

The bites appear to be marked by their lasting duration, redness, irritation, and/or swelling, which exceeds that of mosquito bites.

As reports of the mystery bites continue to roll in, health officials seem unsure of what exactly is the cause. "We started to notice them ... on social media a few weeks ago," Arlington Public Health Department Spokesperson, Kurt Larrick said. He explained to Newsweek that the agency is "still monitoring the situation" but has "narrowed it down" to a likely culprit—the pyemote.

Pyemotes, as Larrick explained to ABC 7News, are "a type of mite that likes to feed on cicada eggs"—meaning that the abundant cicada population earlier this year might be related to the rise in potential pyemote bites. "They must be very happy with their food supply at the moment," added Larrick.

Brood X Cicada
Some suspect that the strange bites may be linked to the emergence of Brood X Cicadas earlier this year. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Larrick further explained the situation to Newsweek, calling it a "perfect storm" for the mites, prompted by dry weather and the area's abundant supply of two major food sources, oak trees and cicada eggs.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, pyemotes, also known as "itch mites," are "microscopic" and "cannot be seen by the naked eye." There are "several" types of pyemotes—the oak leaf gall mite, in particular, was "believed to be responsible for outbreaks of human bites in 2004 in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas."

The result of a pyemote bite is a "pinhead sized bump with some redness around it," lasting about a week, explained Larrick. However, pyemote bites are not typically harmful to humans beyond their irritating qualities. "The biggest danger is a secondary infection from scratching too much," said Larrick, adding that "prevention" is the most effective way to combat the pesky mites. Effective measures include wearing long sleeves and pants outdoors—which, conveniently, also work for preventing mosquito and tick bites.

"They're here all the time," explained Larrick. "The difference is that there's more social media," he said—meaning that reports of the bites "[get] out there in the public a bit more."

Not all officials, however, are as convinced that pyemotes are to blame. USDA entomologist Dr. Samuel Ramsey told ABC 7News that there could be several other explanations for the mystery bites, including mosquitoes, infections, or allergic reactions. "It is unfortunate that we as scientists have to step back a bit and not give people those definitive answers all the time, because there are alternative explanations," he said.

Update 8/2/21 4:20 PM - This story has been updated with additional information.