Flea Bites

Overview

What are flea bites?

Flea bites are small, discolored bumps on your skin that come from a flea feeding on your blood.

Fleas are tiny, wingless insects. They are dark brown or black and have flat bodies. They have six legs, strong claws on the bottoms of their legs that allow them to hold onto a host and mouthparts that pierce your skin and feed on your blood. Their hind legs are longer and stronger than their legs in the middle and the front, allowing them to jump over 12 inches.

There are more than 2,500 flea species in the world and more than 300 species in the United States.

Flea bites rarely cause any lasting harm. They cause mild annoyance and irritation for a short period. However, flea bites can be dangerous because they may spread diseases that can be serious or even fatal.

Where are fleas found?

Fleas are most active when the weather is warm. Outside, fleas prefer cool, damp areas with a lot of shade. They live around trees, leaves, tall grass and shrubs. Fleas hop onto animals when they walk by these areas.

On dogs, cats and other animals, fleas live around the ears, neck, back and belly (abdomen). Once inside your home, fleas may jump off an infested animal and hide. They often hide in carpet, furniture, bedding and cracks in the floor.

Why do fleas bite?

Male and female fleas feed on blood. Female fleas lay eggs after feeding on blood. In some flea species, especially the species that commonly bother dogs and cats, baby fleas (larvae) feed on blood-rich adult flea poop (feces). Flea poop is also called flea dirt.

Do fleas bite humans?

Fleas bite humans. However, the flea species that commonly bother dogs and cats don’t live on humans. Dogs and cats have much more hair than humans. Fleas like animals with a lot of fur because fur allows them to hide easily.

What happens when a flea bites you?

Fleas have strong claws on the ends of their legs that they use to hold onto a host. Their mouthparts include a tiny needle (proboscis) that pierces your skin, sucks your blood and secretes saliva into your bloodstream.

Why do flea bites itch?

When a flea secretes saliva into your bloodstream, your body registers the saliva as an allergen. Your immune system then sends the chemical histamine to the area where the flea bit you to remove the allergen from your body. Histamine is what causes your flea bites to itch and swell. Most people have a flea bite allergy.

Who is at risk of being bitten by a flea?

Fleas prefer to bite animals. If there isn’t an animal in the area, fleas will bite anyone. The following factors attract fleas:

  • Body heat.
  • Breathing (carbon dioxide or CO2).
  • Movement.
  • Vibrations.

Symptoms and Causes

What do flea bites look like on humans?

After a flea bites you, a small, discolored bump forms. A discolored ring or halo may appear around the bite. Flea bites may appear in a straight line or a cluster of many bites.

Flea bites most commonly occur on your legs, especially your feet, calves and ankles. Flea bites rarely appear above your knee, unless you spend a lot of time sitting or lying down.

What causes a flea bite?

Male and female fleas bite. They feed on your blood as part of their diet. Female fleas lay eggs after feeding on blood. In some flea species, flea babies feed on adult flea poop, which contains blood.

What are the symptoms of a flea bite?

The symptoms of a flea bite vary. If the flea has a disease or an allergic reaction occurs, the symptoms may be more severe.

Common symptoms include:

  • Itchy and irritated skin.
  • A discolored ring around the bite.

More severe symptoms can include:

  • An allergic reaction (hives, rash, shortness of breath and swelling).
  • Infection of a disease carried by a flea (fever, headache, body aches, rashes, nausea, abdominal pain, weight loss, dizziness and weakness can accompany various diseases).

Diagnosis and Tests

How can you tell if it’s a flea bite?

Flea bites are slightly more unique than other common insect bites. After a flea bites you, a small, discolored bump typically forms. A discolored ring may form around the bite. Flea bites don’t swell to the size of mosquito bites.

Flea bites are also unique because of their bite pattern and location. Flea bites often appear in a straight line or a cluster. Fleas are more likely to bite you on your legs, especially your feet, calves and ankles.

It’s important to examine your pets. If your pets are scratching more than normal and restless, it’s a good idea to check them for fleas. If your pet has fleas and you have bites on your legs, you likely have flea bites.

Management and Treatment

How are flea bites treated?

Flea bites typically don’t need treatment. Over-the-counter anti-itch creams or ointments and antihistamines can relieve itchy skin and discomfort. However, see your healthcare provider if more severe symptoms develop after a bite (allergic reaction, fever, headache or body aches).

How do I stop flea bites from itching?

Don’t scratch your flea bites. You risk breaking your skin and exposing yourself to infection. If you accidentally break your skin, keep the area clean by washing it with soap and water and covering your flea bites with a bandage. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have an infected flea bite.

Flea bites only last a few days. However, there are many over-the-counter products or home remedies that can stop flea bites from itching.

Home remedies are safe for most people. However, it’s a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before trying some of the following options to get rid of your flea bites. You may be at risk of developing an allergic reaction on your skin.

  • Antihistamines: Antihistamines are a popular flea bite treatment. Histamine is a chemical created by your immune system. Your body releases histamine after it encounters an allergen. Histamine is what makes flea bites itch. You can take an antihistamine as a pill, or you can apply it directly to your flea bite as a cream or ointment.
  • Hydrocortisone: Hydrocortisone is a corticosteroid combined with an anesthetic pain reliever. It relieves itching and swelling. You can apply it directly to your flea bite as a cream or ointment.
  • Ice: Ice can slow down the amount of blood that flows to an area. It reduces inflammation, pain, swelling and itchiness. Apply an ice pack covered in a light towel over the area for at least 10 minutes for flea bite relief.
  • Aloe vera: Aloe vera is a succulent plant. The gel in its leaves contains salicylic acid, which relieves itching and pain. You can apply aloe gel directly to your flea bite.
  • Chamomile tea: Chamomile tea contains dried chamomile flowers. The dried chamomile flowers contain terpenoids and flavonoids, which are natural chemicals that have antioxidant and antihistamine properties. To treat a flea bite, add a chamomile tea bag to water. Let the tea bag steep for at least 20 minutes until the water is a rich gold-brown color. Remove the tea bag from the water and squeeze the tea bag to remove excess water. Press the tea bag to your flea bites for at least 10 minutes, and then wipe your bites with a clean towel. Put the wet tea bag in a container in your refrigerator so that you can reuse it on your bites throughout the day.
  • Honey: Honey has many properties that relieve itching and pain. Honey contains an enzyme called catalase, which provides relief for minor inflammation. Put on enough unprocessed honey to lightly cover your flea bites. To avoid accidentally creating a sticky mess, you can also put a bandage on top of your honey-covered flea bites.
  • Oatmeal: Oatmeal contains gluten, which can soothe itchy flea bites. The best way to use oatmeal to treat your flea bites is to grind it into a fine powder (colloidal oatmeal) in a blender or food processor. Mix the oatmeal powder with warm water until it becomes a thick, sticky paste. Apply enough of the oatmeal paste to completely cover your flea bites. After at least 10 minutes, wipe off the paste with a clean towel.

Prevention

How do I stop getting bitten by fleas?

To stop flea bites, you must get rid of the fleas. Fleas are more likely to bite your pet. Check your pet for fleas around their ears, neck, back, and belly. Part your pet’s fur and look around its skin. If you find fleas, here are some removal options:

  • Flea comb: The tines on a flea comb are very close together. When you brush your pet’s fur, fleas get stuck in the tines. If you see fleas in the comb, dunk the comb in a bowl of soapy water.
  • Flea shampoo: Soak your pet in warm water and thoroughly apply a flea shampoo. Avoid getting shampoo in your pet’s eyes and mouth.
  • Medicine: Give your pet over-the-counter or prescription flea medicines. Some medicines are oral (taken by mouth). Other medicines are topical (put on the skin).
  • Wash the bedding: Wash your pet’s bedding in hot water every few days. Wash your bedding in hot water, too, especially if your pet sleeps with you. Dry the bedding on the highest heat setting.
  • Vacuum: Use a strong vacuum to thoroughly clean your carpets, rugs and fabric furniture. When you finish, immediately empty the vacuum’s contents into a bag, seal it and throw it away outside.

Bed bug bites vs. flea bites

Like fleas, bed bugs feed off your blood and secrete saliva into your bloodstream. Bed bug bites look similar to flea bites. However, bed bug bites often exhibit a distinct line or zigzag pattern. Bed bugs are active at night, and they’ll bite your exposed skin while you’re sleeping, including your face, hands, arms, feet and legs.

Flea bites vs. mosquito bites

Mosquitos are small, flying insects. They also feed off your blood and secrete saliva into your bloodstream. Mosquito bites look a little different than flea bites. After a mosquito bites you, a small, raised bump forms. The raised bump may change colors, and you can sometimes see a small, dark spot in the center. The dark spot is where the bite occurred.

Living With

How do fleas spread disease?

Fleas spread disease through their bites. Fleas are vectors (living things that carry diseases between animals and humans). Vectors often carry infections through blood. Many of the creatures classified as vectors are bloodsuckers. Other vectors include ticks, mosquitoes and sandflies.

In rare cases, fleas can spread tapeworms and other parasites to animals and people. Parasites can spread if a person or animal were to swallow an infected flea accidentally. In houses with a flea infestation, young children are more likely to get a parasite than adults. Young children spend more time on the floor, and fleas like to hide in carpets and cracks.

What types of diseases can be spread by flea bites?

Fleas sometimes carry diseases that can infect humans. Some of those diseases include:

Plague

Plague most commonly affects small rodents in Africa, Asia, North America and South America. Most human cases of plague in the United States occur in the western part of the country, especially in rural New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, California, Oregon and Nevada. Infected fleas can transmit plague to humans. Humans can also get plague after handling an infected animal. Symptoms of plague include:

  • Flu-like symptoms like fever, aches and chills.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Bleeding under the skin or other organs.
  • Weakness.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Pain in the chest and/or abdomen.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting.

Endemic murine typhus

Endemic murine typhus commonly occurs in warm coastal areas in tropical and subtropical regions. Most cases in the United States occur in southern California and Texas. Infected fleas transmit endemic murine typhus to humans through flea poop. Infected flea poop enters your body through broken skin — typically from scratching a flea bite — or by inhaling it through your mouth or nose. Symptoms of endemic murine typhus include:

  • General discomfort.
  • Headache.
  • Pain in your muscles and/or joints.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting.
  • Fever and/or chills.
  • Rash.
  • Cough.

Cat Scratch Disease (CSD)

CSD commonly occurs throughout the world. In moderate climates, more cases occur during the fall and winter seasons. In tropical climates, cases occur throughout the year. Fleas pass on the bacteria _Bartonella _to cats. Fleas can sometimes pass the bacteria to dogs or other animals. Infected cats also pass the bacteria during fights with other cats. Cats — especially kittens — pass the infection to humans through a bite or scratch. Symptoms of CSD include:

  • A small, discolored blister or pimple near the scratch or bite.
  • Swollen, painful lymph nodes.
  • General discomfort.
  • Fever.
  • Night sweats.
  • Weight loss.

Parasites

Tapeworm larvae and the larvae of other parasites sometimes infect fleas. Infected fleas can spread parasites to animals and humans. Animals and humans must swallow an infected flea to acquire a parasite. Animals may swallow an infected flea while grooming. Humans rarely acquire parasites from infected fleas. Most cases involve children, who spend more time on the ground around places where fleas hide. Symptoms of parasites include:

  • Nausea.
  • Weakness.
  • Weight loss.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Dizziness.
  • Headache.

When should I see a healthcare provider?

You should see a healthcare provider if you experience an allergic reaction to flea bites or develop symptoms of a disease or parasite carried by fleas.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Flea bites are an itchy, annoying problem for you and your pets. In most cases, flea bites are ultimately harmless. But you shouldn’t scratch your flea bites. You can relieve your itch with many over-the-counter or home remedies. Contact your healthcare provider if your bite symptoms last longer than a few days or if you develop an allergic reaction or other symptoms.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/31/2021.

References

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fleas. (https://www.cdc.gov/fleas/index.html) Accessed 8/10/2021.
  • Dobler, G., Pfeffer, M. Fleas as parasites of the family Canidae. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21767354/) Parasit Vectors. 2011 Jul;4:129. Accessed 8/10/2021.
  • Giladi M, Ephros M. Bartonella Infections, Including Cat-Scratch Disease. In: Jameson J, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, Hauser SL, Longo DL, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 20e. McGraw Hill; Accessed 8/10/2021.
  • Prentice MB. Plague and Other Yersinia Infections. In: Jameson J, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, Hauser SL, Longo DL, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 20e. McGraw Hill; Accessed 8/10/2021.
  • Walker DH, Dumler J, Blanton LS, Marrie T. Rickettsial Diseases. In: Jameson J, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, Hauser SL, Longo DL, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 20e. McGraw Hill; Accessed 8/10/2021.

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