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Bites from fleas and insects
A rash, especially in the area of the extremities, does not necessarily have to be an allergic reaction or a skin disease. Especially in summer and in households where pets like dogs or cats live, fleas can also be behind such skin irritations. The flea bites are not entirely safe, because the parasites are able to transmit a number of dangerous infectious diseases. In addition, those affected by the bites cause an extremely annoying itching sensation and can sometimes become severely inflamed if itching causes patients to scratch the bite wounds. Special care must be taken when handling flea bites. You can find all the important information in this article.
Flea bites are relatively easy to differentiate from other insect bites and most skin rashes. The animals are known to be very systematic about their bites or stings and even to take test bites, which is why corresponding bite wounds are usually lined up closely together. Three groups of bites are common, with a single flea bite about one centimeter in diameter and appearing slightly raised on the skin. A light red coloring of the bite marks is also common. In addition, in the middle of the bite, punctiform bleeding can often be seen, which stems from the puncture site of the responsible flea. Sometimes flea attacks are so intense that an affected host body is literally covered with bite wounds. However, the wounds are usually particularly concentrated on the extremities, i.e. arms and legs, and their joint sections in the area of the knees and elbows. Basically, the torso, armpits and hips can also be the target of flea attacks.
Fleas (Siphonaptera) do not represent a separate insect genus but rather a whole order of insects with many different genera. In Central Europe alone, fleas exist in about 80 different species. Not only the so-called human flea (Pulex irritans) can become dangerous in this regard. Also flea species that usually settle on pets, e.g. the dog flea (Ctenocephalides canis), also named after its main host, or the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis), cannot be excluded as the originator of flea bites in humans. Even the rat flea (Yenopsylla cheopis) known as the plague flea does not stop at human hosts.
Other well-known species, some of which at least occasionally target humans, are:
- Badger flea (Chaetopsylla trichosa)
- Red squirrel flea (Monopsyllus sciurorum)
- Fox flea (Chaetopsylla globiceps)
- Hedgehog flea (Archaeopsylla erinacei)
- Rabbit flea (Spilopysllus cuniculi)
- Mole flea (Hystrichopsylla talpae)
- Mouse flea (Leptinus testaceus)
- Sand flea (Tunga penetrans)
- Shrew flea (Palaeopsylla soricis)
- Pigeon flea (Ceratophyllus columbae)
- Bird or chicken flea (Ceratophyllus gallinae)
What the parasites have in common is that they are only one to four millimeters in size, which is why they are difficult to see with the naked eye. In addition, they mostly bite at night when their victims sleep soundly. Unnoticed they crawl under their clothes, which explains why flea bites are mostly found on covered parts of the body. Their numbing saliva secretion also helps the fleas to go unnoticed for the time being. It is secreted into the bite wound by the fleas' mouthparts, more precisely, their proboscis and suction proboscis and, in addition to local anesthesia, also causes delayed blood clotting so that the insects can drink freely from their host.
Only after the actual bite does it develop wheals after a few minutes, which begin to itch increasingly. The reason for this is the saliva secretions already mentioned. For the human skin, these secretions are foreign substances that immediately lead to irritation reactions. Both the reddening and the annoying itching around the bite wound can last for several days to weeks without counter-treatment. To make matters worse, the parasite saliva can also lead to various pathogens, including
- Francisella tularensis (causative agent of tularemia),
- Rickettsia mooseri (causative agent of endemic stain fever),
- and Yersinia (the pest pathogen Yiersinia pestis is transmitted from the plague or rat flea).
Danger: If the contaminated saliva of a flea leads to wound contamination, in addition to redness and itching, there are also serious wound infections and even body-wide infections. Also, despite sometimes unbearable itching, it is strongly advised not to scratch the bite wounds. The saliva secretions, like infection germs, could spread further.
Fleas - way of life and transmission
Fleas are wingless insects that prefer to stay in a mild climate at 10 ° C or more. They feed on the blood of warm-blooded organisms, with a good 94 percent of their hosts being provided by mammals. This means that farm animals, rodents, pets and lactating wildlife are among their preferred food sources. Unlike many other parasites, they are not necessarily bound to specific host animals. Rather, the location of their nests determines the choice of the host. And this is exactly where the great dangers for people arise. Because in addition to animal fur and thick body hair, the fleas also serve as nesting sites for household upholstery and textiles such as
- Pet basket,
- Upholstered furniture,
- and carpets.
As is well known, fleas can jump very far, which is why they easily cover larger distances between nest and host. Finding them here is often an act of impossibility. Often the little tormentors are so fast or only one representative got lost, making it almost impossible to spot the fleas.
Useful information: The quick jump, which replaces the non-existent insect wings in fleas, is considered the fastest movement in the animal kingdom. It arises from the enormous stroke that fleas create with their hind legs. The lifting process is an interplay of muscle contractions and elastic protein cushions (so-called resiline cushions) located in the hind legs of the fleas, which stretch like a bow before each jump and allow the insect to soar high. The lifting process when jumping as a wing replacement is also responsible for the scientific name of the fleas "Siphonaptera", which is composed of the ancient Greek words síphōn for "lifter" and ápteros for "wingless".
A distinction must be made between two groups with regard to the habits of fleas.
Basically, nest fleas act in the immediate vicinity of their nesting and sleeping area. They prefer dark and dry surroundings, which is why inconspicuous corners and rarely used upholstery and textiles, which are hardly irritated by vibrations, are popular with them. The light-shy parasites come out of their nesting hiding place only at night and only to drink from their hosts. The favorite victim of the nest fleas are therefore logically warm-blooded animals. Since they are also reluctant to change their location, entire colonies can form from their clutches, which significantly increases the risk of severe infestation in the apartment. The most important representative of the nest fleas is the human flea. He has made it a habit to nest directly in or at least on the bed of his human victims, e.g. on the underside of the mattress, in bed linen or, in the case of children's beds, also in soft toys.
Fur fleas show a clear contrast in everyday behavior. Their name is due to the fact that they prefer to live on animal fur and fur. They hardly mind light and vibrations, which is why they are only too happy to be carried around by their animal owners and sometimes go on long hikes. Usually, fur fleas only select animals as potential hosts. However, if the range of innkeepers is too small, they can make an exception and stick to people.
A classic representative from the group of fur fleas is the rat flea. In the Middle Ages, this was instrumental in the epidemic spread of the plague. The disease was originally more common among rats and other rodents. By ingesting the pest pathogens with the rat blood, fleas were also infected with the plague. Probably for reasons of poor hygiene, the rat fleas increasingly came into human habitats in the Middle Ages. The epidemic spread of the plague can be explained by the fleas' habit of choking larger amounts of plague bacteria out of their forestomach when biting into human hosts and expelling them into the bite wound. In this way, the pest pathogen got into the bloodstream of those affected and the plague infection started.
The clearest sign of flea bites is the reddened, slightly raised bite marks on the skin. They are accompanied by a strong and annoying itching and usually run in a row to form several bite points or in a triangle. The resulting bite pattern is also known in medicine as the flea road and indicates a certain systematic approach of the parasites when diagnosing the gaze. If there is an allergy to the fleas' saliva or the bite is accompanied by an infection, the bite wounds can also appear as whitish and very painful poplars. The flea bites are very often localized on the arms and legs as well as on the inside and outside of the joints such as the ankle, the elbow, the arm spoke, the armpits or the hollow of the knee. But other parts of the body such as the back or the abdomen can also be affected. Overall, the following symptoms can be expected for flea bites:
- Redness of the bite wound,
- Bite groups in rows or in a triangle (Flea Street,)
- severe itching,
- White coloring of the poplar (in case of flea allergy),
- and pain in the wound area
Attention! Pain in combination with burning redness in flea bites indicate inflammation of the bite wounds. An infection process is very likely here, which is why a visit to the doctor is strongly advised. In general, it makes sense to have flea bites examined in general in order to be able to rule out infections through careful examination measures.
Diagnosis of flea bites
In private, the safest way to confirm flea infestation is to first check existing symptoms. A suspicious rash, which is itchy and has the typical bisque character of a flea street, confirms an initial suspicion in this regard. After that, of course, the main finding of living fleas or their legacies confirms the existence of fleas in the household.
Since the parasites are very small in themselves, it is usually very difficult to find them directly. However, fleas leave traces of faeces that are all too often mistaken for black specks of dust. However, since the black, millimeter-sized balls consist mainly of digested blood, they turn reddish when they come into contact with water. The same applies to the grinding of the flea droppings, which also promotes small traces of blood. The latter effect is particularly beneficial for those affected by a suspected flea infestation when it comes to tracking down the pests. For example, you can comb the fur of domestic pets living with a special flea comb and collect the black fecal crumbs. If you rub the crumbs on a white cloth, it turns rusty brown. A similar procedure can be used for textiles that are suspected of being infected by fleas. Pillows, blankets or clothes are simply shaken out for this purpose, the collected dirt is put on a damp cloth and rubbed.
If there is any initial suspicion, it is advisable to go to the doctor with the flea bites. Not only that it is important to heal the bites quickly with appropriate preparations to prevent itching-related scratching and thus wound infections. The patient's blood should also be checked for any infectious agents. In addition to the eye diagnostic test, blood tests are also important. If the bite marks have already been scratched by patients, it is also a good idea to take a smear to see whether the wound has been contaminated by germs.
Therapy for flea bites consists on the one hand of treating the bite wound with special preparations. On the other hand, of course, the infected living space and pets must be freed from the fleas. Extreme care must be taken to ensure that flea infestation has been fully combated. For this reason, here are a few useful tips and information for comprehensive treatment.
Treatment of the environment
Even before the treatment of the flea bite itself, the treatment of the area affected by the fleas comes first. As long as this has not happened, there will always be new flea bites. It is important to know that fleas only become active once a day in order to elicit a blood meal from their host. Otherwise, they prefer to retire to the immediate vicinity of their hosts and look after their offspring there. At nest fleas, even at peak times, it is assumed that only a maximum of ten percent of the flea population actually present is on a host, while the remaining 90 percent are in the vicinity. In addition, the fleas responsible for the bites can also be fur fleas that only get lost on the human body in passing. It is therefore important to subject not only yourself, but also domestic pets and any possible nesting sites for fleas in your own household to a comprehensive flea control.
For pets, flea collars or spot-on preparations are ideal. The latter are special medicinal products for instilling on animal fur, which kill the parasites safely and can also be used for prevention, especially in the high season for fleas (spring and summer).
Important: The sleeping places of the animals should also be thoroughly cleaned if not completely replaced!
Flea sprays like Ardap are helpful in treating the area. If you want to avoid aggressive chemical clubs, you can also try organic flea powder. In any case, the life cycle of fleas should be considered when fighting parasites. Because with a single treatment, the work is unfortunately not done yet, since the fleas' eggs can often survive initial measures. For this reason, it is important, depending on the preparation used, to repeat the corresponding measures several times according to the product instructions. If the infestation is very bad, it can take up to three months until all fleas, larvae and eggs have been completely removed.
A few more rules of thumb for the control process are:
- Quarantine: Objects that are difficult to clean are best placed in quarantine after treatment. To do this, you pack the objects in large garbage bags and isolate them airtight in a sealed-off place until the safe end of the life cycle. After the quarantine, it makes sense to treat the object again with appropriate anti-flea agents to ensure that all parasites have been completely caught.
- Comprehensive basic cleaning: In addition to textiles such as upholstery, animal baskets or clothing, carpets, soft toys, curtains and towels should also be thoroughly cleaned as a precaution. For safety reasons, the floor should be wiped hot after each cleaning step to prevent falling parasites from escaping. The car should also be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.
- Control by experts: If you are unsure whether you really caught all fleas during the treatment, the help of a exterminator is advised. Thanks to his special training, he can not only read the tracks of the animals in a targeted manner, but can also carry out professional basic cleaning in an emergency. If in doubt, pets should have a veterinarian examine them again after treatment.
Flea bites can be very itchy, which often leads to scarring during the healing process, because affected people constantly scratch the bite points. This is especially true for young patients who usually don't know how to help themselves differently. However, the itching can be well alleviated by soothing ointments, for example Fenistil gel, cooling gel or chilled zinc ointment.
Sometimes flea bites can lead to allergic reactions or severe local inflammation. The advice of a doctor who prescribes cortisone-containing ointments and tablets or antihistamines is essential here. If serious infectious agents have been found that have got under the skin or even into the patient's blood with the bite, antibiotic therapy is also inevitable.
Home remedies and herbal treatment
Especially the strong itching can also be treated well with home remedies for flea bites. Chilled vinegar infusions or cooled peppermint tea placed directly on the affected skin areas provide quick relief. Sometimes it helps to put on a cooling pad.
The aloe vera plant is also often used for itchy rashes of any kind. On the one hand it relieves the itching, on the other hand it also cares for the irritated skin and thus contributes to healing. Unperfumed gels can be used for this, or the leaves of an aloe vera plant are cut lengthways and placed on the affected skin area. After about 15 minutes, the aloe vera treatment should be temporarily interrupted, but it can be used as often as desired throughout the day.
Another helper from the field of medicinal plants is the tea tree for flea bites. Its oils relieve itching and, thanks to their antibiotic effect, also prevent inflammation of the wound. However, the oil should not be applied undiluted to the skin area, as the highly concentrated ingredients otherwise trigger irritation rather than cure, especially on damaged skin. Diluted with a little water or as an additive to a healing ointment (for example panthenol), the tea tree oil can work wonders.
On the one hand, flea bites are complicated due to their infection and scarring potential. If the fleas previously picked up infectious agents elsewhere, a flea bite can quickly become a serious matter, which can even reach epidemic proportions. A plague transmitted to fleas by rats - with a strong association with the Middle Ages - has also often been a problem in the recent past, albeit more in developing countries. With us, on the other hand, it is more likely staphylococcal and streptococcal infections, against which one must protect oneself from bites caused by infected fleas.
As mentioned, scars develop especially when the bite wounds are scratched bloody due to the strong itching. This happens all too easily because the urge to scratch it up is very great due to the itching sensation. It is therefore very important to resist the urge and prefer to use cooling wound preparations in the case of annoying all-time itch. In addition, scratching can also get dirt particles and germs into the wound, which increases the risk of inflammation and infection, even if the fleas responsible for the bite have not carried any infectious agents with them.
Another complication arises from the difficulty of getting a household really flea-free. The small size of the parasites allows them to hide very well, which can lead to a further outbreak of the plague even after supposedly successful control. In addition, those who have survived the flea invasion often continue to live with the fear of being confronted with this problem again, which can develop into a mental stress that should not be underestimated in everyday life.
Speaking of psyche: Many people struggling with a flea affliction suffer greatly from the fact. For two reasons. On the one hand, they are ashamed of the parasite infestation, as well as of the obvious parasite traces on their bodies, which can sometimes lower their self-esteem and cause inferiority complexes. Other people who know about the infestation often avoid dealing with those affected. This is especially for children who are excluded or teased by peers in kindergarten or school, for example.
"Social ostracism" is a very heavy burden. In addition, cases of parasite infestation often involve the risk that those affected develop a certain compulsive behavior when it comes to household and body cleaning. Tangible phobias, for example in front of insects or pets, which could potentially be loaded with fleas, cannot be ruled out in this context. (ma)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Miriam Adam, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch
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- Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria, Australia: Fleas (access: July 15, 2019), betterhealth.vic.gov.au
- Government of South Australia: Fleas - including symptoms, treatment and prevention (access: July 15, 2019), sahealth.sa.gov.au
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Illnesses on the rise From mosquito, tick, and flea bites (accessed: 07/15/2019), cdc.gov
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ICD codes for this disease: T14ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.