When people refer to “sand fleas,” they can be referring to one of several different types of creatures: Both sand flies, which inhabit aquatic environments, and sand or mole crabs, which are crustaceans that inhabit beaches but don’t bite people, are examples of insects. Actually, according to Nancy Hinkle, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Georgia’s Department of Entomology, “any flea that emerges out of a sandy region, people call a sand flea.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, real sand fleas are actually chigoe fleas, or Tunga penetrans, and they can actually be highly harmful to people’s health without necessarily biting. Fortunately, these sand fleas are very uncommon in the United States, but that doesn’t mean you won’t ever come across them, especially if you travel outside the nation at some point.
Here is what Health learned about sand fleas, sand flea bites, and the other harm these parasites may do in order to help you with everything you need to know about sand fleas. Health spoke to Hinkle, an entomologist (often known as a bug specialist).
What are chigoe fleas, also known as sand fleas, and where do they reside?
The CDC states that adult female fleas offer the greatest risk to humans and that chigoe fleas are also known as jiggers, sand fleas, chicas, picos, piques, or suthis. Although adult fleas feed on warm-blooded hosts like humans, both adult male and female fleas actually burrow into human skin (more on that later).
According to Hinkle, these sand fleas are primarily found on beaches in the Caribbean and South America. The fleas originated in Africa, and according to Hinkle, sand fleas are widespread on African beaches as well. According to the CDC, fleas typically inhabit sandy environments like beaches, stables, and farms.
Tunga penetrans could still be found in the US even if it isn’t currently there. You might be able to acquire fleas if you visit a beach in the Caribbean and come into contact with them there, for example. And after coming into contact with sand fleas, you could spread them by walking around a beach in the US. There is a chance that you could bring chigoe fleas to Florida if you have been walking along a Florida beach, warns Hinkle.
How do bites from sand fleas appear and feel?
Things start to get interesting here: Humans aid in the reproduction of sand fleas. According to Hinkle, male sand fleas briefly encounter female sand fleas where they have burrowed into the skin (often the feet). Technically speaking, this is tungiasis, or a Tunga penetrans infestation. The female can release her eggs to the ground after mating since only her head will be burrowed into the skin, not her tail. The female will expel approximately 100 eggs over the course of two weeks before dying and dropping to the ground out of the foot.
Sand flea bites are frequently overlooked as they occur. Due to the fleas’ small size and propensity to adhere to the ankles or feet, you might not even detect them when they first touch the body. In fact, according to the CDC, the first signs of a sand flea infestation typically appear once the females have reached their engorged stage. The risk is as follows, according to Hinkle: “You have this great vacation, you board the plane, and a couple of days later you detect discomfort on your big toe, [and] it hurts to walk about. According to the CDC, this inflammation and ulceration may grow severe, and several lesions can make it difficult to walk.
However, the bite itself—or even strictly the burrowing—isn’t often the issue; rather, it’s the consequences. You may become infected through the entrance made when the female burrows into your skin. A bacterial infection is made possible by a hole that the female sand flea “creates.” According to Hinkle, this may result in a tetanus or gangrene diagnosis. In extreme circumstances, sand flea bites force victims to have their toes amputated. The damage caused will determine the course of treatment if you are diagnosed with sand flea bites by your doctor.
Your main point:
When you do decide to take a trip in the future, it never hurts to check ahead to see if sand fleas are an issue at the beaches you intend to visit. According to the World Health Organization, coconut oil and repellents like bug sprays with DEET can both effectively keep fleas at bay. That being said, it’s crucial to read the label of your preferred insect spray to determine how often you should use it to ensure that you’re always protected.
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