- Signs & Symptoms
What are fleas?
Fleas are parasitic insects that feed 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 can be bitten by so-called "sand fleas," usually found at the beach and in coastal areas. They are not insects, but tiny crustaceans, although their bite is similar to the cat flea's bite. They do not infest homes.
Adult fleas are about 1/12 to 1/8 inch long, wingless, oval, flat from side to side, and dark reddish-brown. They have six long legs and can jump very high and far, about 200 times their body length. Flea larvae are pale white and measure about 3 mm long, resembling tiny worms.
What are the signs and symptoms of flea bites in humans?
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.
Symptoms of flea bites on humans that will occur immediately after being bitten include:
- Red spots with a halo
- 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:
- Difficulty breathing (shortness of breath or wheezing)
- Swelling of the lips or tongue
- Chest pain
Allergic reactions to flea bites can be a medical emergency, so call 911 or get to a hospital's emergency department immediately.
Do flea bites itch? Is it bad to scratch them?
IMAGESSee a picture of flea bites along with other bites and infestations See Images
How do healthcare professionals diagnose flea bites in humans?
If your dermatologist suspects a flea bite, they will inquire about your living conditions and recent exposure after your skin examination. There is no laboratory test to confirm that fleas are the causal agent of these rashes.
How can you tell the difference between flea bites and bed bug bites?
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 and 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.
What are natural home remedies for flea bites in humans?
Natural and home remedies to soothe or relieve itching from flea bites include:
- Wrap ice packs (or frozen vegetables) in a towel and apply them to the skin to relieve swelling, and 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 them 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.
How can you to stop flea bites from itching?
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 of 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 are the complications of flea bites in humans?
Infection and disease can result from flea bites. Infection usually occurs because 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 several diseases to both humans and animals. Diseases transmitted to humans by fleas include:
How can you prevent flea bites?
Since most flea bites are due to fleas brought into the home by pets, the best way to prevent being 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 it in hot water.
- Vacuum carpets, rugs, and upholstered furniture frequently, especially in areas where pets sleep, 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 is 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.
Do fleas only infest houses with pets?
While most home flea infestations occur in homes with pets, fleas can infest homes without pets as well. This may happen in several scenarios.
- 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 do you check your house for fleas?
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. Flea feces on your pet may look like dot-like insects or flecks of dirt or pepper.
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, 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 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.
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How can I get rid of fleas in my house fast?
Getting rid of fleas is a multi-pronged approach. There are some natural solutions that may help repel fleas, however, if you have an infestation it is probably best to consult a pest-removal specialist to thoroughly rid your home of fleas, and consult your veterinarian to make sure your pets are flea-free.
Once you have gotten rid of fleas, you can use some natural remedies to prevent them from returning.
- Treat areas of the home with antimicrobial solutions such as tea tree oil, garlic spray, or diatomaceous earth powder.
- A few drops of tea tree oil may be added to bath products, or it may be used as spray-on bedding, upholstery, carpets, and other fabrics.
- 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.
- 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 nearby. The fleas are attracted to the warmth of the light and will fall into the trap and drown.
- 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.
- Eucalyptus trees are known to be flea-repellent and can be planted in the yard.
Flea bombs (foggers) do not soak into carpets well, where flea larvae live. Because of this, most pest control specialists do not recommend flea bombs because they do not consider them to be effective.
Some natural remedies that may help repel fleas in pets include:
- Add small amounts of Brewer's yeast and apple cider vinegar to your pet's drinking water to help repel fleas.
- Diluted apple cider vinegar may also be used as a final rinse for pets after bathing.
- Herbal shampoos to bathe your pet(s) include eucalyptus, lavender, geranium, lemon, or tea tree.
- Garlic added to your pet's food may help repel fleas.
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.
Entomology Department at Purdue University . "Fleas."
Castells, MC, MD, PhD. "Insect bites." UpToDate. Updated: Kim 01, 2017.
Michigan State University Pesticide Safety Education Program. "Questions and Answers About Fleas."
National Park Service US Department of the Interior. "Office of Public Health - Flea Factsheet."
Fleabites.net "Flea Bites on Humans - Pictures, Treatment and Prevention."
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