Flea Bites (Home Remedies and Treatments)

  • Medical Author:
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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Facts and definition of flea bites

  • Fleas are a parasitic insect that feeds on the blood of mammals and birds.
  • The most common flea species in the U.S. is the cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis.
  • "Sand fleas" are not insects, but are tiny crustaceans, with a bite similar to that of the cat flea.
  • Flea bites on humans look like small red spots that often occur in two to three groups or clusters with redness around them.
  • Symptoms of flea bites on humans include
    • red spots with a halo,
    • itching,
    • hives,
    • rash (characterized by small clusters of bumps), and
    • swelling around the bite.
  • Symptoms of allergic reactions to flea bites that are a medical emergency, and include difficulty breathing (shortness of breath or wheezing), swelling of the lips or tongue, dizziness, nausea, and chest pain.
  • Infection from flea bites can occur as a result of scratching the bites.
  • Fleas can transmit a number of diseases, including plague (Yersinia pestis), bartonellosis, typhus (Rickettsia typhi), tungiasis, and flea tapeworm.
  • One of the first signs of a flea infestation in the home is when pets start scratching, biting, or licking themselves excessively.
  • Fleas can also infest a home without pets.
  • Flea bites can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) anti-itch creams, lotions, or ointments. Wash the area first to keep infection from spreading and avoid scratching the bite.
  • Home remedies to soothe or relieve itching from flea bites include ice packs, Aloe Vera, witch hazel, rubbing alcohol, vinegar, tea tree oil, and used tea bags.
  • Prevent flea bites by keeping your pets and home free of fleas. Use flea preventive on your pets, and keep your home clean and vacuum pet areas regularly.
  • It may be necessary to consult a pest control specialist to get rid of fleas.

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Can You Get the Bubonic Plague from Your Dog?

Fleas will quickly set up shop on untreated pets, and the little buggers can transfer to you and your family. Fleas also can transmit serious diseases to people, for example, the bubonic plague. Symptoms of bubonic plague include:

  • Enlarged, painful, and tender lymph nodes
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Weakness
  • Headache

Ask your vet about once-a-month flea medication, and put a monthly reminder on your calendar to avoid secondary infections from flea bites.

What are fleas?

Fleas are a parasitic insect that feeds on the blood of mammals and birds. There are an estimated 2,500 species of fleas in the world. The most common flea species in the U.S. is the cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis, which also infests dogs and can bite humans.

Humans also may get bitten by so-called "sand fleas," which usually are found at the beach and in coastal areas. They actually are not insects, but tiny crustaceans, though their bite is similar to that of the cat flea. They do not infest homes.

What do fleas look like?

  • Adult fleas are about 1/12 to 1/8 inch long, wingless, oval, flat from side to side, and dark reddish-brown.
  • They have 6 long legs and can jump really high and far, about 200 times their body length. Flea larvae are pale white and measure about 3 mm in length, resembling tiny worms.

What do flea bites look like?

Flea bites look like small red dots. These spots often occur in two to three groups or clusters with redness around them and sometimes a light halo. They tend to bite humans around the feet, ankles, and lower legs.

For people who are allergic to flea bites, there can be larger areas of redness, and small pimple-like bumps.

The redness can last from a few hours to several days, depending on an individual's reaction, and how much (or little) the bites are scratched.

Picture of flea bites
Picture of flea bites

What are the signs and symptoms of a flea bite?

Symptoms of flea bites on humans that will occur immediately after being bitten include:

  • Red spots with a halo
  • Itching
  • Hives
  • Rash (characterized by small clusters of bumps)
  • Swelling around the bite

Some people are more sensitive to flea bites, and can have allergic reactions. Symptoms of allergic reactions to flea bites include:

Allergic reactions to flea bites can be a medical emergency, so call 911 or get to a hospital's emergency department immediately.

Are flea bites and bed bug bites the same?

Flea bites and bed bug bites appear similar, but they are not the same.

  • Bed bug bites often look like mosquito bites. They can be red, firm, and there may be some slight swelling around the bite. Flea bites look like small clusters of red spots.
  • Bed bug bites often appear in linear rows and can appear anywhere on the body, whereas flea bites tend to be located in clusters often on the feet and ankles.
  • Bed bugs are nocturnal, and like to make their home in your mattress, so bites from these insects usually occur at night when you are sleeping. Fleas are also nocturnal but tend to cling to pets, and are found on furniture, drapery, and carpeting.
  • Bed bug bites may take several days to appear and will start to itch gradually, whereas flea bites start to itch immediately and become swollen and red within an hour after the bite.
  • Both flea bites and bed bug bites itch and can cause allergic reactions.

Is it OK to scratch itchy flea bites?

Regardless of how much they itch try not to scratch flea bites. Flea bites can itch intensely and can cause a secondary infection. Symptoms of infection from flea bites include:

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How are flea bites treated?

The main symptom of flea bites is itching, which can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) anti-itch creams, lotions, or ointments.

  • Wash the area first to lessen the chances for infection.
  • Apply an anti-itch topical medication such as calamine lotion (Caladryl), hydrocortisone (Cortaid, Cortizone), or diphenhydramine (Benadryl Itch Stopping Gel).

If the itching is bothersome, an oral antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) may help. If you have an allergic reaction, see a doctor. You may be prescribed a stronger antihistamine such as hydroxyzine (Vistaril, Atarax).

What natural or home remedies soothe and treat flea bites?

Natural and home remedies to soothe or relieve itching from flea bites include:

  • Wrap ice packs (or frozen vegetables) in a towel and apply to the skin to relieve swelling, and to numb the area.
  • Aloe Vera may ease redness and swelling.
  • Witch hazel can help with itching.
  • Rubbing alcohol can be used to dry the bites.
  • White vinegar (dilute 1 part vinegar with 1 part water) can provide temporary relief.
  • Tea tree oil to can relieve itching.
  • Cool used teabags in the freezer and apply to the bite to relieve inflammation.

Avoid scratching the flea bites because you can create an open wound that will let in bacteria, and can lead to infection.

Can I get sick with an infection or disease from flea bites?

Infection and disease can result from flea bites. Infection usually occurs as a result of scratching the bites. Bacterial and other debris can be present under the fingernails, and if a person vigorously scratches a fleabite, they may cause the rash to become an open wound for bacteria to enter.

Fleas also can be a public health threat because they can transmit a number of diseases to both humans and animals. Diseases transmitted to humans by fleas include:

  • Plague (Yersinia pestis)
  • Bartonellosis
  • Typhus (Rickettsia typhi)
  • Tungiasis
  • Flea tapeworm

How can I tell if I have fleas in my house or apartment?

One of the first ways people notice they have a flea infestation is when their dogs or cats start scratching, biting, or licking themselves excessively. You can use a flea comb to check your pet's fur for fleas and flea feces. You may notice dot-like insects on them, or what appears to be flecks of dirt or pepper, which actually is flea feces.

Once fleas have gotten onto pets it does not take long to spread through the household. Once they have infested the home, you may notice fleas hopping on your carpet, furniture, or drapery.

If you suspect that your pet or home may have a flea infestation you can test the dark specks to see if it is flea feces. Moisten the suspected flea feces, and if it turns red or maroon in color it is flea feces. (Flea feces is comprised of dried blood.) Another quick way to help you check for a flea infestation is to wear long white socks. Fleas like to jump on human's feet, ankles, and lower legs. The insects are dark reddish-brown, and if they jump on you while you wear white socks they will be easier to see.

What natural remedies or solutions get rid of fleas in the home?

There are some natural solutions that may help repel fleas, however, if you have an infestation it's probably best to consult a pest-removal specialist to thoroughly rid your home of fleas, and also consult your veterinarian to ensure your pets are flea-free.

Once you have gotten rid of fleas, you can use some natural remedies to prevent them from returning.

  1. Treat areas of the home with antimicrobial solutions such as tea tree oil, garlic spray, or diatomaceous earth powder.
  2. A few drops of tea tree oil may be added to bath products, or it may be used as a spray on bedding, upholstery, carpets, and other fabrics.
  3. Essential oils can be used to make a homemade flea repellant spray. Common oils used include eucalyptus, peppermint, tea tree, rosewood, cedar, citrus, or lemongrass. Mix with water and put in a spray bottle.
  4. Use homemade flea traps to help get rid of fleas. In a bowl, add equal amounts of hot water and liquid hand soap, and place the bowl at the foot of your bed with a small lamp on nearby. The fleas are attracted to the warmth of the light and will fall into the trap and drown.
  5. Before you vacuum, sprinkle diatomaceous earth powder and Borax powder on carpets, rugs, and flooring. Borax can be irritating to the skin and eyes, so keep away from children.
  6. Eucalyptus trees are known to be flea-repellent, and can be planted in the yard.

Some natural remedies that may help repel fleas in pets include:

  1. Brewer's yeast and apple cider vinegar can help repel fleas and can be added in small amounts to your pet's drinking water.
  2. Diluted apple cider vinegar may also be used a final rinse for pets after bathing.
  3. Herbal shampoos that are formulated for pets and include eucalyptus, lavender, germanium, lemon, or tea tree can be used to bathe pets.
  4. Garlic added to a pet's food may help repel fleas.
  5. Put some fennel by your dog's sleeping areas or dried chamomile herbs near your cat's sleeping areas to repel fleas from these areas.

Talk to your vet about ways to keep your dogs and cats free from fleas. Before using any home or natural flea preventive/repellant remedy on your pets, consult with your vet. Some remedies work well for some pets and not others, and some pets may have unwanted reactions to these items. The amount of any herb or oil or other product used for a pet may vary depending on their size, weight, age, breed, and overall health. It is always best to consult with your veterinarian to make sure the products and amounts you use are safe for your cats and dogs.

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What other treatments get rid of fleas in the home?

Getting rid of fleas is a multi-pronged approach.

  • Rid pets of fleas, which may require medication from your veterinarian.
  • Rid your home of fleas, which involves thoroughly cleaning, dusting, and vacuuming all areas.
  • Outside areas must be maintained including keeping the lawn cut short.
  • You may need flea control pesticides. Before using these products, check that they are safe to use around pets.
  • It may be necessary to consult a pest control specialist.

Flea bombs (also called foggers) are not recommended because they do not soak into carpets well, where flea larvae live, and they are not considered effective by most pest control specialists.

Do I have to have a pet to get flea bites?

While most home flea infestations occur in homes with pets, fleas can infest home without pets as well. There are several scenarios in which this may happen.

  • If you recently moved into a home where previous owners had pets with fleas, and they were not properly eradicated, you may find yourself with a flea infestation.
  • Used furniture may come infested with fleas.
  • Neighborhood dogs or cats that have fleas may hang out near your home
  • Pests such as rats or mice, or wild animals such as opossums, raccoons, squirrels, and skunks also can carry fleas and bring them into your home.

What public places may have fleas?

  • A common public place where fleas may be found is in dog parks. They also may be found in large natural parks that are home to wild animals such as opossums, raccoons, squirrels, and skunks that can carry fleas.

How can flea bites be prevented?

Since most flea bites are due to fleas brought into the home by pets, the best way to prevent getting bitten is to prevent the fleas from getting on your pets.

  • Keep your pets away from animals you know have had fleas recently.
  • Keep your pets out of difficult to treat places such as under decks or sheds.
  • Mow your lawn frequently and keep the grass short.
  • Use a flea comb to check your pet's fur for fleas.
  • Keep pet bedding clean and wash in hot water.
  • Vacuum carpets, rugs, and upholstered furniture frequently, especially in areas where pets sleep, and also under beds, sofas and behind furniture.
  • Dust furniture and dry clean curtains and upholstery.
  • Use flea preventive medicine on your pet once a month (for example, Advantage, Advantix, Frontline, Revolution, Sentinel, and others). Talk to your veterinarian about the right product for your dog or cat.

If you catch fleas on pets or in your home early, it's much easier to get rid of them before they spread throughout your home.

To prevent bites from sand fleas if you are on the beach:

  • Avoid the beach in the early morning and late afternoon, when sand fleas feed.
  • Use lounges or chairs rather than a towel or blanket on the sand.
  • Wear closed shoes and socks when walking on the beach.
  • Use insect repellant with DEET.
  • Stay away from seaweed, a favorite food of sand fleas.

REFERENCES:

Ogg, Barb, PhD. "Integrated Flea Control." University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
<http://lancaster.unl.edu/pest/resources/integratedflea.shtml>

Entomology Department at Purdue University . "Fleas."
<https://extension.entm.purdue.edu/publichealth/insects/flea.html>

Castells, M.C., MD, PhD. "Insect bites." UpToDate. Updated Apr 28, 2015.
<http://www.uptodate.com/contents/insect-bites>

Michigan State University Pesticide Safety Education Program. "Questions and Answers About Fleas."
<http://www.ipm.msu.edu/uploads/files/Fleas.pdf>

National Park Service US Department of the Interior. "Office of Public Health - Flea Factsheet."
<https://www.nps.gov/public_health/info/factsheets/fs_fleas.htm>

Fleabites.net "Flea Bites on Humans - Pictures, Treatment & Prevention."
<http://www.fleabites.net/>

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Reviewed on 8/22/2016
References
REFERENCES:

Ogg, Barb, PhD. "Integrated Flea Control." University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
<http://lancaster.unl.edu/pest/resources/integratedflea.shtml>

Entomology Department at Purdue University . "Fleas."
<https://extension.entm.purdue.edu/publichealth/insects/flea.html>

Castells, M.C., MD, PhD. "Insect bites." UpToDate. Updated Apr 28, 2015.
<http://www.uptodate.com/contents/insect-bites>

Michigan State University Pesticide Safety Education Program. "Questions and Answers About Fleas."
<http://www.ipm.msu.edu/uploads/files/Fleas.pdf>

National Park Service US Department of the Interior. "Office of Public Health - Flea Factsheet."
<https://www.nps.gov/public_health/info/factsheets/fs_fleas.htm>

Fleabites.net "Flea Bites on Humans - Pictures, Treatment & Prevention."
<http://www.fleabites.net/>

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