We often read about head lice on humans, but we rarely hear anything about fleas on humans. Fleas will on occasion visit and bite a human, but most species choose other hosts to live on and pester. There are, in fact, at least 2,000 species of fleas. Only one of these species seems to have a preference for humans, or if not a preference, it will still regard a human as being an acceptable host. There may be more than one so-called ‘human flea’ but so far only a single species has been identified as such. Some species that prefer other hosts are not shy about taking a nip out of a human however, should the opportunity present itself.
Just as is the case with dogs, cats, and most other warm-blooded animals, the fleas that choose humans as hosts feed from the host’s blood. They require blood to survive and also require blood to be able to reproduce. An adult flee can often live for up to a year without eating, but an emerging adult will die within a few days if it cannot find a host and a blood supply.
Pulex irritans – the Human Flea
The human flea is aptly named since the scientific name for it is Pulex irritans, and it certainly can be an irritating creature. P. irritans is a cosmopolitan flea, and is sometimes even classified as such, since it uses several different animals as hosts as well. A household infested with P. irritans could easily be characterized as one having fleas on cats, dogs, carpets, and humans.
There is little that can be said about the relationship between P. irritans and humans that is positive. Their bite can indeed be irritating. This species, like many other flea species, often serves as a vector for disease, the most well-known of which is plague. Instances of fleas on humans that have resulted in the spread of a disease are extremely rare however, despite well-known incidents such as the spreading of the Black Death in the middle ages.
Fleas Only Jump When They Have To
We often think of a flea as something that behaves like a kangaroo in its movements as its appearance is one of a creature that has a hard, somewhat slender body, a tiny head, something to bite with, and a pair of outsized hind legs. A flea, in fact, has six legs, thus making it an insect. It has no wings, but it uses its hind legs to propel it when it senses a host is nearby or needs to escape. When this insect is residing on its host, it will make use of its other legs to move around. Its thin body helps it move easily through a forest of hair shafts.
When using a human as a host, P. irritans will usually spend most of its time in the person’s clothing except when it’s feeding, although it might also spend a good deal of time living in a thick head of hair, or even in a full beard. What that can mean to you is that if you have a flea problem, a bath and a good shampoo won’t necessarily resolve it. Your tiny companions might simply be waiting in your clothing or in your bed for you, their food source, to return. Their preference is to spend most of their time in an environment you tend to frequent, and hopping on you only when they are in need of a meal.
How a Flea is Able to Find You
You may wonder how the human flea is able to find you in the first place. Since it is also a dog and cat lover, it can hop on over to you when you are petting the animal, or simply find a spot in the carpeting from where it can ambush you as you walk by. P. irritans can sense your presence by vibration, the presence of carbon dioxide from your breath, by your odor, and by changes in light. Humans have not yet been able to rely on stealth technology to avoid these little beasts. The fact that a typical flea can jump a distance of about a foot in two-hundredths of a second makes it difficult to move out of the way if one decides to hop on you.
Flea Bite Symptoms and Possible Complication
Flea bite symptoms usually consist either of small bumps, a rash that appears in the general area of a bite, or both. Flea bites on humans are usually much smaller than mosquito bites although they look somewhat similar, and they very often occur in groups of three or four. Since an allergic reaction can sometime be triggered by flea bites, some individuals may experience what appear to be hives over a more widespread area. Swelling may also take place, but if it does, it will normally only be observed in the immediate area of the bite.
The most common symptom of course is that of itching, which can become quite severe in some instances, and may not necessarily be confined to where the bites have occurred. Bumps that occur will at times bleed if pressed, but any bleeding that takes place is most often the result of scratching a bite. While contracting a disease that a flea might have carried from another source is always a possibility, it is a somewhat remote one. A secondary infection caused from excessive scratching can sometimes result in additional symptoms or complications, however. You can get a flea bite almost anywhere, although the fleas seem to have a preference for the waist and the ankles, or somewhere that clothing is in constant contact with the skin. Folds in the skin and the armpits are other highly favored locations.
Treating Flea Bite Symptoms
There are a number of ways to treat flea bite symptoms, but unless action is taken to eliminate the fleas themselves, any such treatment is apt to be temporary at best. An anti-itch cream is often all that is needed, or you can use a calming lotion to relieve the symptoms. An antihistamine will usually be effective as well. A hot bath will work too, and will usually kill any fleas that are on you in the process, particularly if you’ve placed a little detergent and lemon extract in the water. Taking a hot bath is much more effective than taking a shower. You can use regular shampoo in your hair, but it will be most effective if you shampoo your hair at the beginning of your bath and let the shampoo sit in your hair until your bath is nearly finished. Apply a cream or lotion to the affected areas after your bath and you should be feeling much better.
Getting Rid of Fleas is No Simple Task
Don’t think that your flea problem is over just because you’ve taken a nice, hot bath. Even if your bath killed a few fleas, there are likely more than a few more in your house waiting for their next chance to hop on. You are going to have to prepare yourself to embark on a flea killing expedition to rid yourself of the problem. Either that or have an exterminator come in and do the job for you. One of the problems with fleas is that their somewhat complex life can make it difficult to kill them all off at once. It usually takes repeated efforts.
If you are the one who is in charge of killing off these parasites, you and the other members of your family need to be taking a good hot bath every couple of days. Dogs need to be bathed. Cats probably do as well, but may not cooperate and may need to be dusted instead. One thing to bear in mind is that flea powders and medications that are suited for dogs are sometimes toxic to cats, and often to people as well.
Your entire house may require a thorough cleaning as fleas anywhere in the house can, in a few hundredths of a second, become fleas on humans. One good way to get rid of fleas that may be living in the carpeting is to sprinkle baking soda in the carpet. Baking soda won’t hurt the carpet, but it will dehydrate and kill any fleas that are there. There are other powders you can put in the carpeting or spread around the house as well, such as diatomaceous earth, which will also cause the pests to become dehydrated. Be careful about breathing in any of these powders, and if you purchase a commercial product, check to make sure it is not toxic to your house pets. One trick is to walk around on your carpeting while wearing white socks. If you pick up a few tiny specs, they are apt to be fleas.
If you spot an individual flea and manage to catch it, which is usually accomplished by combing the hair, attempting to kill it by crushing it between your fingers will usually prove fruitless, because of the hard shell the flea resides in. Tweezers, or any other pair of hard surfaces will work.
Fleas on humans can be tough customers, especially since you have to deal with the surrounding environment as well as any that are sitting on you. Wearing a flea collar might help, if one can be produced that is both safe for humans and effective against P. irritans.