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Whether you call them sand fleas, chiggers, jiggers, or nigua, these tiny biting insects can ruin a family vacation, especially when the kids are bitten on their legs and between their toes. Here are seven tips for keeping your vacation sand-flea free.

Sand fleas are the vampires of the insect world. Inserting themselves into the skin, they literally drink your blood until they are able to reproduce. Sand fleas cause inflammation, irritation, itching, and infection, and it's not unheard of for people to lose their toes, the toes simply falling off, after especially bad sand flea bites.

What Is a Sand Flea?

A sand flea, as its name suggests, is a flea that spends part of its life in warm sand or soil. Hatching from an egg dropped off the skin of its mother's last victim, the sand flea quickly grows into its adult form and seeks out its first meal.

The flea feeds on the blood of humans, dogs, cats, horses, cows, or mice (but not rats). Male fleas leave their hosts after they feed on blood, but the female flea burrows itself into the skin head first to find a blood vessel to which to attach herself. The female flea's abdomen then balloons out like a life preserver to hold her in place so she can continue feeding up to 10 days while she lays her eggs, the flea having the ability to breathe through its anus.

How Do You Recognize Sand Flea Bites?

The sand flea is the smallest of all fleas, just 1 mm (0.04 inch) long. It prefers to bite between the toes, leaving just a tiny black speck outside the skin. The area around the bite may be red and inflamed as far out as 10 mm (a little less than half an inch), and in especially severe cases, there may be oozing, dripping, and death of healthy tissue.

The site of the bite may be red and itchy for the first day or two, and then painless and as callus forms around it. However, as the flea expands its abdomen to anchor itself in the skin, there are can be mild to intense pressure, followed by an allergic reaction to the flea after it releases its eggs and dies.

Where Do You Get Sand Flea Bites?

The sand flea is native to Mexico and Central America, but it has found its way across America's Gulf Coast and to beach vacation destinations around the world.

In some tropical countries, up to 50% of the population has permanent problems with sand flea bites. 

The sand flea is not the same pest as the harvest mite, also known as a "chigger." This eight-legged arachnid is native to temperate climates. However, the "chiggers" one encounters in the southern United States are often actually sand fleas, the same species as the tropical pest.

Sand flea bites can ruin a family vacation, especially for children. Fortunately, there are things you can do to keep sand fleas from becoming a problem.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Caumes E, Carrière J, Guermonprez G, Bricaire F, Danis M, Gentilini M. Dermatoses associated with travel to tropical countries: a prospective study of the diagnosis and management of 269 patients presenting to a tropical disease unit. Clin Infect Dis. Mar 1995. 20(3):542-8.
  • Feldmeier H, Kehr JD, Heukelbach J. A plant-based repellent protects against Tunga penetrans infestation and sand flea disease. Acta Trop. 2006 Oct. 99(2-3):126-36. Epub 2006 Sep 29.
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