Sand fleas are bloodsucking parasites that are found in some tropical regions. They are arthropods that belong to the family Hectopsyllidae and genus Tunga; and are mainly found in some parts of South and Central America and West Indies. Normally, these fleas inhabit areas near water bodies, and feed on rotting plant matter and seaweeds. They are also dangerous for humans as they can inflict horrendous bites.
Sand fleas are known in different names, like Sarcopsylla penetrans, Pulex penetrans, jigger, pico, chigoe flea or pigue. They are wingless insects with specialized mouth parts that help them in sucking blood. Due to these features and their shrimp-like looks, sand fleas are often mistaken as crustaceans. These tiny fleas have a body length of around one millimeter, and are found in pale white to brownish shades. Usually, a sand flea's waxy body has seven segments; and long legs that help them in swimming and jumping. They are not good jumpers, as they can cover only 20 to 40 centimeters in a single jump. So, sand fleas do not travel long distances, and are found in a small radius near water bodies, like pools, creeks, lake beds, and beaches. However, beaches comprise the main dwelling place for sand fleas; and so, regular beach goers are the common victims.
Sand Flea Bites
As mentioned above, sand fleas have special bloodsucking mouth parts that enable them to bite and suck blood from the host. Their hosts are warm-blooded animals, especially humans, cattle and horses. These fleas inject saliva into the host, so that the latter's blood gets thinner and can be easily sucked. It is this saliva that causes the symptoms in the victims. White-skinned beach goers are more prone to sand flea bites. As compared to their counterparts, white-skinned people have thinner skin, and it is easier for the fleas to puncture the skin, and suck blood. Both male and female sand fleas suck blood from warm-blooded hosts, but breeding females burrow into the skin, and live there for around two weeks and lay eggs. This causes severe symptoms.
In short, these fleas can inflict two types of bites. One is the regular one, wherein the insect bites the host, sucks blood, and leaves the body of the host. Such bites can be more painful and itchy, as compared to mosquito bites. If an impregnated female burrows into the human skin, it will settle there for the next two weeks, causing occasional irritation and itching. During the first week, the eggs develop inside the flea, and it will not cause any major symptom, except occasional irritation. After that, the affected site develops swelling and redness along with some blisters and a black spot in the center. The black spot is actually the flea's reproductive and respiratory organs, along with the hind legs that are exposed through the orifice. Towards the end of the second week, around 100 eggs will be laid by the flea and these eggs will be expelled through the black spot. The eggs that fall off the skin will hatch within two to three days, if the conditions are right.
So, if a breeding female flea burrows into the human skin, the initial symptoms include minor irritation. After a week, the affected spot develops blisters, swelling and redness, along with the black spot. During this time, the person will experience pain, itching and even numbness of the area. The spot may also have a white halo around it. The symptoms can be mild or severe as per the location. Usually, sand flea bites are found on the legs, as these fleas cannot jump to greater heights. In some people, the symptoms can be really serious with severe pain and discomfort. Sand flea bite may also cause ulceration of the area, fibrosis and discharge. If the condition (called tungiasis) is not treated in time, it may lead to secondary conditions, like tetanus, gangrene and bacteremia.
In case of such symptoms, it is advisable to consult your health care provider immediately, rather than trying to take out the insect on your own (as it may lead to infection). Sand flea treatment include application of anti parasitic drugs and petrolatum, cryotherapy, and removal of the flea using forceps. In some cases, a minor surgery may be required to remove the flea. Sand flea bites can be prevented by wearing shoes and applying bug sprays while going outdoors. In case of ordinary bites, you may use antihistamines and apply calamine lotion over the area. If you develop nodules, redness and swelling, contact your doctor immediately.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice. Visiting your physician is the safest way to diagnose and treat any health condition.