The term “sand fleas” is often used to describe any number of tiny organisms found on the beach, from sand flies and gnats to tiny crustaceans. Most of these creatures are harmless and don’t cause any problems. However, sand fleas (Tunga penetrans) are insects that thrive in subtropical and tropical environments. When adult female sand fleas burrow into the skin, they can cause a condition known as sand flea disease (tungiasis).
In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about sand fleas, including what they are and where they live as well as treatment options for sand flea disease.
Table of Contents
What Are Sand Fleas?
Sand fleas, or Tunga penetrans, are parasitic insects that feed on the blood of live hosts, including humans. Adult female sand fleas burrow into the skin.
The sand flea is known by many other names, including:
- Jigger flea
- Chigoe flea
Where Do Sand Fleas Live?
Tunga penetrans can be found in sandy areas, such as beaches, farms, and stables. They are especially widespread in rural areas where dirt floors are common. They thrive in many subtropical and tropical climates around the world.
Sand fleas are often found in remote, sandy parts of:
- South America
- The West Indies
- Sub-Saharan Africa
Sand fleas aren’t native to the United States. However, they can sometimes be carried here by international travelers.
Pictures of Sand Flea Bites: What Do They Look Like?
Sand fleas are very tiny and usually penetrate the toes or feet. After burrowing under the skin they typically form a white, disc-like shape with a black point at the center.
Over time, the round skin lesion gets darker until it is uniformly black. There may also be inflammation, pain, swelling, and itching in the affected area of the skin.
You can view an image of flea bites below:
What Are the Risks of Sand Flea Bites?
Most bites from organisms referred to as sand fleas don’t cause any long-lasting harm. Most symptoms, such as itching and inflammation, should resolve on their own or with over-the-counter (OTC) treatment.
However, some people who are exposed to T. penetrans develop sand flea disease (tungiasis), a condition that can lead to serious health complications.
Sand Flea Disease (Tungiasis)
Tungiasis, also known as sand flea disease, is a tropical disease caused by adult female sand fleas burrowing into the skin. They leave behind circular lesions in the toes or feet that often get irritated, itchy, and inflamed.
Complications of tungiasis may include:
- Difficulty walking
- Permanent disfigurement of the feet
- Chronic pain
- Loss of nails
Sand flea disease is especially common in low-income areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Older people, people with disabilities, and boys ages 5 to 14 are disproportionately likely to develop the condition.
How to Treat Sand Flea Bites
Research suggests that around 80% of sand fleas can be killed within about a week by topical dimethicone oil, which is usually used to treat head lice. Studies have also found that coconut oil-based lotion can prevent sand flea infestation when applied directly to the feet.
To avoid infection, it’s important to not scratch your bites too much or try to extract sand fleas on your own. A clinician may be able to manually extract the fleas from your skin lesions using sterile surgical instruments. They may also recommend a tetanus booster if you’re not up to date.
If you’re bitten by any other species of fleas or other organisms that are sometimes called sand fleas, you can treat itchy bumps with topical corticosteroids (such as hydrocortisone) or oral antihistamines.
How Are Sand Flea Bites Diagnosed?
A healthcare provider can diagnose sand flea bites and/or sand flea disease with a visual inspection of the affected area of the skin. They may also ask you about your symptoms and medical history, as well as recent travel.
Mechanical extraction (with the help of a healthcare provider) can also aid in the diagnostic process. In addition to relieving symptoms, this can help to identify both the fleas themselves and their eggs.
When to Contact a Healthcare Provider
In most cases, sand flea bites aren’t dangerous. Topical OTC treatments, time, and self-care often help to relieve symptoms.
However, you should reach out to a healthcare provider if:
- Your symptoms aren’t going away or are getting worse.
- You have trouble walking .
- You’re in pain.
- You notice any signs of infection, such as fever, pus, or skin that is warm to the touch.
Sand flea bites (and sand flea disease) aren't common in the United States, but they are possible. If you notice any signs of skin inflammation or irritation after visiting the beach, talk to a healthcare provider about treatment options. In the meantime, try to avoid touching the affected area too much in order to prevent infection and other complications.
World Health Organization. Tungiasis.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tungiasis.
Abrha S, Heukelbach J, Peterson GM, Christenson JK, Carroll S, Kosari S, Bartholomeus A, Feldmeier H, Thomas J. Clinical interventions for tungiasis (sand flea disease): A systematic review. Lancet Infect Dis. 2021;21(8):e234-e245. doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30853-7
Abrha S, Christenson JK, McEwen J, Tesfaye W, Vaz Nery S, Chang AY, Spelman T, Kosari S, Kigen G, Carroll S, Heukelbach J, Feldmeier H, Bartholomaeus A, Daniel M, Peterson GM, Thomas J. Treatment of tungiasis using a tea tree oil-based gel formulation: Protocol for a randomised controlled proof-of-principle trial. BMJ Open. 2021;11(7):e047380. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2020-047380
Nordin P, Thielecke M, Ngomi N, Mudanga GM, Krantz I, Feldmeier H. Treatment of tungiasis with a two-component dimeticone: a comparison between moistening the whole foot and directly targeting the embedded sand fleas. Trop Med Health. 2017;45:6. doi:10.1186/s41182-017-0046-9
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