Sand flea bites are red, itchy bumps on your skin caused by bites from certain insects or organisms. Some sand fleas are harmless, but others can burrow into your skin and cause serious skin problems, infections or diseases.
People tend to think of “sand flea bites” as bites from any tiny organism in the sand. Some of these bites are harmless, while others can be quite dangerous.
The most common and least dangerous of all the organisms that people call “sand fleas” are actually crustaceans. So, they aren’t fleas or even insects. They’re in the same family as crabs and lobsters. People only call them “fleas” because they hop and jump. You might also hear them referred to as sand hoppers, beach fleas or beach hoppers. These creatures might cause red, itchy bumps on your skin, but the irritation usually goes away in a few days.
True sand fleas are the Tunga penetrans, also called the chigoe flea or jigger flea. These fleas (the smallest known flea) can bore holes into your skin. They may cause a parasitic infection called tungiasis (sand flea disease) that can lead to severe inflammation and skin lesions (wounds). Chigoe fleas are typically in tropical climates such as Central America, South America, Africa, the Caribbean and the West Indies. They’re rare in the U.S.
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It’s also important to note that sand fleas aren’t the same as sand flies. There are lots of different types of sand flies and they usually just cause mosquito-like bites that go away in a few days. But one type — Leishmania parasites — can be dangerous. They’re usually in tropical climates, but Leishmania parasites have now made their way to parts of the U.S., including Florida and Texas. They can cause leishmaniasis disease, which leads to skin wounds, infections, organ damage or even death.
Regular flea bites and sand flea bites have a few similarities. Both types of fleas can live on wild or domestic animals. And both of them can transmit diseases. But they’re different because regular fleas don’t live on humans, while sand fleas do. The other difference is that regular flea bites don’t tend to cause serious skin wounds like sand fleas can.
Anyone can get mild bites from the common sand fleas. They live in humid conditions. So, if you’re walking barefoot on the beach, playing in the sand or wading in warm, shallow water, you may get bites.
However, sand flea disease from chigoe sand fleas is more common in poor or underdeveloped rural regions. People who spend a lot of time barefoot on beaches, farms or dirt floors are at the highest risk. Young children, the elderly and people with disabilities are especially susceptible to sand flea disease and related infections. These fleas tend to thrive during dry seasons such as August and September. Anyone who travels through these areas may return home carrying chigoe fleas.
Sand flea disease is the most common parasitic infection in many poor, rural communities in developing nations. Research suggests it could affect up to 60% of the general population and up to 80% of children in these regions.
Common sand flea bites happen a lot in the U.S., especially in coastal areas.
All sand fleas bite because they’re hungry. Bites from the chigoe sand flea occur when the female penetrates skin and burrows into flesh. The flea sucks the host’s blood (the host could be a human or an animal). As the chigoe flea grows and develops, it swells to about 2,000 times its original size. The flea lays eggs while burrowed in the host’s skin. The eggs eventually fall out of the skin before hatching. The female chigoe fleas might live in the host’s skin for four to six weeks until they die.
Both common sand flea bites and chigoe flea bites tend to occur on your ankles and feet. They might show up in soft, fleshy areas between your toes, on your heels or under your toenails. Sometimes, people also get bites and skin irritation on their thighs, hands, groin or genitals.
Early symptoms of both common sand flea bites and chigoe flea bites might be mild and include:
Once the chigoe female flea lays eggs, the bumps swell and turn white. A black spot might appear in the middle of the white area. The pressure from the bite irritates nearby tissues and can be really painful. Gradually, the chigoe bites can get dark and crusty or break open into skin wounds or ulcers. Open skin lesions are extremely susceptible to bacterial infections such as tetanus or gangrene (dead body tissue).
A healthcare provider will carefully examine your skin, especially your feet, between your toes and any other place you may have skin irritation. They’ll also review your medical history and any past skin problems, allergies or infections.
Common sand flea bites, as well as early-stage chigoe flea bites, may look like other skin problems, including:
You can help your provider differentiate these conditions by describing any potential exposure to fleas, other insects or allergens you may have encountered recently. Make sure to mention if you’ve:
There aren’t blood tests to confirm a diagnosis of sand flea bites. However, your provider may do tests to find out if you have any infections or diseases as a result of the bites.
You may be able to manage the symptoms of mild sand flea bites with:
People with open wounds or those who might be at high risk for infections should take antibiotics. Your healthcare provider may recommend a tetanus shot or topical creams typically used to treat head lice. Sometimes, your provider surgically removes the fleas from your skin. You should never use a sharp object to try and remove fleas yourself.
Reduce your risk of sand flea bites by:
Common sand flea bites usually clear up in a few days. As for chigoe sand fleas, they eventually die and fall out of your skin, so the infestation usually resolves on its own. Most people don’t experience serious illness or long-term complications from the chigoe bites. However, severe wounds or related infections can lead to:
If you notice any bumps, redness or irritation on your skin, talk to a doctor. It’s probably a mild rash, allergy or insect bite that will clear up in a few days or weeks. Open sores, ulcers or signs of infection require immediate medical attention.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Sand flea bites can range from mild to severe. Some bites from tiny organisms called sand fleas (that are actually crustaceans) are pretty harmless. But other types of sand fleas (usually those in rural, underdeveloped areas), called chigoe fleas, can cause serious skin problems, bacterial infections and diseases. See your healthcare provider if you notice any type of skin rash or irritation that doesn’t go away in a few days.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/16/2022.
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