what to know about sand flea bites, including treatment and prevention
When people talk about sand fleas, they may be talking about a few different organisms: Sand flies, which live in and around aquatic habitats, and sand or mole crabs, which are actually crustaceans that live on the beach and don't bite humans. Really, "any flea that comes out of a sandy area, people call a sand flea," Nancy Hinkle, Ph.D, a professor at University of Georgias Department of Entomology, tells Health.
But true sand fleas are technically known as chigoe fleas, or Tunga penetrans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionand they're actually quite detrimental to human health, but not necessarily from a bite. Luckily, these sand fleas are extremely rare in the US, but that doesn't mean you'll never come across them, especially if you travel outside the country at some point.
To help you with everything you need to know about sand fleas,Health spoke to Hinkle, an entomologist (aka, a bug expert)here's what we found out about sand fleas, sand flea bites, and what other damage these parasites can cause.
Chigoe fleas are known by quite a few different names: jiggers, niguas, chicas, picos, piques or suthis, according to the CDC, which says that adult female fleas pose the most risk to humans. While both adult male and female fleas feed on warm-blooded hosts, like humans, the adult mated females actually burrow into the skin of humans (more on that later).
These sand fleas are mainly found on Caribbean beaches, as well as beaches in South America, Hinkle says. The fleas originally came from Africa, and Hinkle says sand fleas are common on African beaches as well. The CDC adds that the fleas normally occur in sandy climates, including beaches, stables and farms.
Just because we dont currently see Tunga penetrans in the US doesnt mean we couldnt: If you were to travel to a beach in the Caribbean, for instance, and come into contact with the fleas, you could potentially pick them up there. And then, if you walked around a beach the US after coming into contact with sand fleas, you could introduce them to the area. That is a risk[if] you have been walking along a Florida beach, you could start an infestation of chigoe fleas in Florida, Hinkle says.
Here's where things get interesting: Sand fleas reproduce with the help of humans. Female sand fleas burrow into the skin (usually the feet) and male sand fleas briefly meet them there to mate, Hinkle says. This is technically called tungiasis, or an infestation by the Tunga penetrans. The females head will be burrowed into the skin but her rear end isnt, which allows her to expel eggs to the ground after mating. The female dies after expelling eggsabout 100 or so over a two-week period, per the CDCand then will fall out of the foot, to the ground.
Usually, people dont notice sand flea bites as theyre happening. The fleas are small, and they usually attach themselves to the ankles or feet, meaning you might not even notice when they first make contact with the body. In fact, per the CDC, the initial symptoms of a sand flea infection usually start to develop only after the females are in their engorged state. Thats the risk there: You have this lovely vacation, you get back on the planea couple of days later you notice irritation on your big toe, [and] its hurting to walk around, Hinkle says. This inflammation and ulceration may become severe, the CDC says, and multiple lesions can cause difficulty walking
But the bite itselfand even strictly the burrowingisnt necessarily the problem, its the aftermath. The opening created when the female burrows into the skin can put you at risk of contracting infections. The female sand flea creates this opening that allows bacterial infection. This can lead to a tetanus diagnosis, or one of gangrene, Hinkle says. In severe cases, people have to have toes amputated as a result of a sand flea bite. The treatment prescribed if your doctor diagnoses you with sand flea bites hinges on the damage done.
Your takeaway: The next time you do find yourself planning a vacation, it cant hurt to look ahead to see if sand fleas are problematic on the beaches you plan on visiting. The World Health Organization reports that repellents, such as DEET-containing bug sprays, can be effective in keeping fleas away, as can coconut oil. That said, its important to check the label of your preferred bug spray to see how frequently you need to apply it to make sure youre constantly protected.
sand fleas and beach fleas, jigger or chigger? welcome to vetzone
Has this list piqued your interest? Oh yeah, and pique is yet another name for one of these arthropods. I would say parasites, but they are not all parasites. In fact, this list includes insects, arachnids, and crustaceans. They range from 0.2 mm to 35 mm in size. Despite all the variation and many causing disease, the names of these little critters generate confusion. Lets take a closer look.
Todays podcast originates from a recent question I received from a veterinarian regarding preventive strategies against sand fleas on US beaches. They worried about pets being bitten. We discussed that while bearing the name flea, these little guys are actually crustaceans who filter feed as the tide flows in and thus cannot bite. Of the genus Emerita, other names attached to them are beach fleas, sand crabs, or mole crabs.
Those Homo sapiens who know me, know that I love referring to organisms by their family, genus and/or species name. Heres why. As we discussed, sand fleas in the US refer to harmless and extremely cute little crustaceans of the genus Emerita. Children often catch them in their hands at the shores edge. I hold many fond memories of this and still try to find them when I walk along beaches.
Across the pond, in the UK, sand fleas refer to Tunga pentrans which is the worlds smallest flea. Despite their diminutive size, these fleas transfer pain in a most unsettling and gross manner. At barely a millimeter in size, the gravid females gnaw their way through peoples skin with their crude mouthparts. They gnash their way until only the tip of their bum is exposed. There they feed and begin to produce eggs usually one to two hundred. This process swells their body over 2000 times their original size. This mechanical pressure, along with an inflammatory response elicits marked pain. As they gain access where our skin contacts them on tropical sandy environments, most infestations are located on our feet. The unfortunate child in the news obtained her infection from walking barefoot in a pig pen while traveling in Brazil. The CDC reports that Tunga infestations predispose people to secondary bacterial infections, gangrene, and even tetanus.
Endemic from Mexico to South America, and across the West Indies and parts of Africa, it is no wonder that these disgusting little beasties have over 20 different common names according to Wikipedia. The most well-known common name is likely Chigoe flea.
While I love the land of Shakespeare, Britains names for Tunga fleas creates a lot of confusion as they call them by the name sand flea and jigger. Thats jigger with a J, not to be confused with chiggers with a ch. Chiggers are Trombiculid mites which are technically arachnids, like spiders or ticks. While we blame both chiggers and jiggers for burrowing inside our skin, only the Tunga flea burrows inside anyones skin. The nearly microscopic chigger mite stays on top.
This fact barely makes them less offensive though. They tear off a bit of your skin, spit some digestive juices inside, wait for a bunch of skin cells to melt and form a hardened bed from which they can sit and munch on you for days before leaving.
Trombiculid mites or chiggers are occasionally referred to as red bugs due to their ruddy complexion. While Trombiculid is a mouthful, the term red bugs misleads one into thinking that they are true bugs they are not. At least bed bugs are true bugs meaning that they belong to the family of Hemiptera. Hemiptera means half-wing and represents the only group of insects that entomologists, parasitologists, and preventists call bugs. Most insects commonly referred to as bugs arent really bugs. Consider red bugs, lovebugs, and ladybugs to name a few.
So, there you have it! A quick tour of some confusing nomenclature. To summarize, in the United States, sand fleas, beach fleas, and sand crabs are cute crab-like creatures of the shore, Brits affected by Tunga fleas call these guys jiggers or sand fleas but most cultures have their own name for them. In the US, the best common name, if you must use one, is Chigoe flea. Chiggers are tiny Trombiculid mites who cause rashes in most parts of the world. And bed bugs are true bugs which we all hope are not sharing a room with us. So, if possible, head to the beach for a romantic weekend and avoid any arthropod but the adorable Emerita analoga dancing between your fingers and the sand.
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