If you’ve ever left the beach with a stinging or itching sensation, you may have received a sand flea bite. While humans aren’t actually the preferred food source for sand fleas—decaying organic matter is their meal of choice—an innocent sunbather can quickly become an easy target when they venture into the areas where sand fleas gather during peak dining hours.
If you’ve been bitten by a sand flea during a recent beach trip, you’ll likely find yourself bringing home a painful, itchy skin rash as a souvenir. Fortunately, there are a few quick and easy ways to mitigate the discomfort those bites can bring. Ahead, we’re sharing everything you need to know about sand fleas, including what their bites look like, how to treat them, and preventative measures you can take to avoid becoming a buffet for the crustaceans.
What are sand fleas?
Despite the critters’ name, sand fleas aren’t actually fleas, but rather are members of the family of crustaceans, Talitridae (or beach hoppers), according to Shannon Harlow-Ellis, associate certified entomologist, Mosquito Joe, a Neighborly company. “Beach hoppers have several common names such as sand fleas, lawn shrimp, land hoppers, or sand hoppers,” she says, adding that there are about 90 different types of this species in the United States and they can be found along coastal areas all over North America.
“They typically live near or just above the high-water mark. During the day they seek shelter in burrows under the sand or under seaweed that has been washed ashore,” she says. “At night they become very active in search of food (organic matter produced by the decomposition of organisms).”
What do sand flea bites look like?
Sand flea bites look like small red raised bumps, and they will typically present in clusters, according to Eric Ascher, D.O., family medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital. While Dr. Ascher says that it’s easy for sand flea victims to confuse the bite marks with those of mosquitoes due to how itchy they can be, sand flea bites are normally more painful. “Because the sand flea cannot jump very high, these clusters are usually located on feet, ankles, and lower legs,” he says, adding that the rash caused by sand flea bites can last up to a week before beginning to fade away.
How to treat sand flea bites
Getting bitten by sand fleas is no day at the beach, which is why Dr. Ascher says beginning treatment at the first sign of a bite can help you heal faster and prevent future complications. “I always tell my patients after a bite, to make sure they clean the area with soap, water, and an over-the-counter antibacterial cream in an effort to prevent infection,” he says. “You can also use comfort measures for relief – I like to grab aloe.”
If you want to go the DIY route, Dr. Ascher says you can make your own concoction. “A home remedy often can work to soothe as well—making a paste of baking soda and water to relieve symptoms,” he says. “Over-the-counter pain meds are encouraged if the aloe is not cutting the edge off the pain. Benadryl or itch creams may help if nothing else does.”
How to prevent sand flea bites
Unfortunately, Harlow-Ellis says the best way to avoid sand flea bites is by removing yourself from their feeding ground, AKA: missing out on some prime beach time. “Avoiding the shoreline at night is the best way to avoid beach hoppers if you tend to have reactions to insects,” she says, adding that topical bug sprays aren’t very effective and keeping the crustaceans at bay.
Additionally, Dr. Ascher says you’ll want to stay home if the weather has been bad. “In an effort to avoid a bite, stay away from the beach after heavy rain, that is oftentimes when you are at highest risk of bites as well as in the early morning hours.”
While sand flea bites are more nuisance than hazardous, it’s best to avoid them whenever possible.
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