Sand Fleas – Complete Guide (Treating Bites, Prevention and Control)

The names ‘beach flea’, ‘sand hopper’ or ‘sand flea’ sound rather cute and unthreatening, perhaps conjuring up the image of a tiny little insect enjoying a day in the sun and the fresh ocean air. However, despite their name, they are very different from the regular household flea and can spoil a relaxing day on the beach. Let’s learn more!

  1. If you’re in a hurry, click here to read the article summary.
  2. Do sand fleas bite and are they dangerous for my family or pets?
  3. What do they look like and how can protect yourself from these pests?
  4. Can they cause any potential health problems for your dog?
  5. How to get rid of sand fleas (three different options, all DIY).

What are sand fleas and where can they be found?

First things first, they are not technically fleas, and don’t belong to the same species as those pests that we commonly find on our pets and in our homes. In fact, they are not even insects – they belong to the same family as lobsters, crabs, crayfish, and shrimps, so they are classified as a crustacean. In the scientific community, they are referred to as “Tunga Penetrans“, but depending on the region, people often refer to them as a “chigoe flea”, “jigger” or “nigua”. Visit that link above to review some additional names that might be used in your locality.

These amphipods love a damp, sandy environment, and thus are found predominantly in marine and coastal areas where the climate is very hot and humid. However, they have been reported in marshy areas and even in deserts, so although they are much more scarce, don’t ignore the possibility of a sand flea bite in these places, and I advise that you take action if you show any symptoms.

I have done some fairly extensive research, and although they are a common complaint near the Caribbean, Africa, parts of America, Australia and India, they can be found in most parts of the world that have tropical or subtropical climates. Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that your favorite beach is infested. Instead of worrying about it, just keep an eye out for symptoms of their bites and then take action if that ever happens.

What about my home and garden? The most common question that I get from my readers is whether these little crustaceans can get into their yards or into their home. They typically will try and definitely avoid your house, but it is possible for them live in your garden if you live very close to the ocean. However, they will rarely hitch a ride with you, as the beach is their preferred environment.

Can they bite and are they dangerous for family or pets?

Yes, they do bite, and the females use the protein in the blood for laying eggs. Many people will suffer from itchiness due to an allergic reaction to the saliva of the pest. Depending on your sensitivity, you may also experience swelling (even if it doesn’t try to get under the skin), or get small raised bumps that are red in color.

The particularly nasty thing about sand fleas is that there are usually quite a number of them in a single area, so you can become covered in loads of itchy, painful bites on your feet, ankles and lower legs very quickly. While this totally sucks, are there any other dangers associated with their actual bites? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

Potential Infection:The first danger associated with the bites is usually caused by your own hand. Scratching the irritating bites will break the skin open and can lead to the lesions becoming infected. Remember, resist the urge at all costs and help your children to understand the importance of this if they have been bitten.

Allergic reactions: There are some people that are extremely allergic to it’s saliva. Although this is not common, it would be irresponsible not to mention this. A person who has a hypersensitivity to it may experience difficulty breathing, dizziness, and even nausea. If this happens, please don’t hesitate to consult a medical professional immediately.

Tungiasis disease: This is very rare in developed countries that have access to good medical services, and is more a problem in remote villages or where there is extreme levels of poverty. However, if a female sand flea manages to burrow into your skin (usually the feet) to lay eggs and symptoms are ignored, you can get this disease. If you continued to neglect the situation, continuous reinfection can also occur, making it critical to seek medical help before it gets to this point.

PRO TIP: If you have been bitten by these critters, I recommend that you treat the area with a Calamine based lotion, or give yourself an oatmeal bath (soak in warm water with uncooked oats that have been ground into a fine powder). If you are still suffering, try making a baking soda paste (just mix it with a little water) or apply a little Aloe Vera gel to the bite marks. These solutions usually give instant relief, but please go and see a doctor if you experience any form of long-term pain or inflammation.

What do they look like and how can protect yourself from these pests?

Picture of what a sand flea looks like on the beachNow that you understand what havoc these little critters can cause, it will be useful for you to know what they look like. True to the fact that they are crustaceans, they look like very tiny shrimps and are usually about 0.04 inches in size (1mm). Many sources state that they grow up to 1.5 inches in size, which is wrong. They are likely getting confused with mole crabs, which look very similar (but are different) to sand fleas.

When it comes to protecting yourself from these critters, “Prevention is better than cure” is the phrase that springs to mind, but that doesn’t mean that you need to avoid holidays or excursions to the beach. Even if they are lurking nearby, simply follow these steps to protect yourself so that you can still enjoy a lovely day in the sun:

Step 1: If you know that a beach has a problem with these pests, keep your visits to the hotter parts of the day, as they typically “come out to play” during the early morning or late afternoon. If you still want to go to the beach at this time, wear closed walking shoes.

Step 2: When you hit the beach, use a chair or a large towel (that is the full length of your body) instead of lying on the sand. If you are out in the midday sun, I wouldn’t worry about wearing shoes, especially if you are going in and out of the ocean. However, if you are near washed up debris, please relocate as sand fleas love seaweed and will often congregate in that area.

Step 3: Use an over the counter bug repellent product that contains DEET, which studies have shown are relatively safe and very effective at keeping these tiny crustaceans (and other pests) away. However, please don’t use it on children younger than 2 months, on the elderly or if you are pregnant. Instead, I highly recommend that you make yourself a natural spray (as shown below), I have used it and it works really well.

How to make a natural sand flea repelling spray: Pour about 8.5oz (250ml) of witch hazel into a spray bottle, then add 1x teaspoon of lavender oil, peppermint oil and tea tree oil. There are other essential oils that could work, so feel free to review this article to get some more ideas for this recipe. Lastly, add about another 8.5oz of water to your mix, and then spray it on your feet and lower legs to keep these pests away from you and your family. I would love to hear your experiences with this spray in the comments section.

Can they cause any potential health problems for your dog?

Picture of a dog on the beach sandAlthough it’s not nearly as common as the ordinary flea that we have come to know (and hate), the sand flea can bite your dog, and a female would be quite happy to try burrow down into his skin. Unfortunately, the tick and flea preventatives that you might normally use are not very effective against this nasty pest.

If you live at the coast and take your doggie regularly to the beach, it is essential to check him periodically and take note if he is frequently scratching, especially if it doesn’t subside. The goal is to avoid any skin damage that could become infected, and if you notice any lumps, I recommend that you take him to the vet.

If you know that your beaches have sand fleas, please take extra precautions by washing your doggy friend after beach visits with clean water and a little Dawn soap. You can read more about how it can help with insect control. Lastly, limit your beach visits to hot days when these pests are trying to hide instead of looking for food.

How to get rid of sand fleas (three different options)

Just to be crystal clear, we are not going to attempt to cleanse an entire beach (I had to mention this, although it made me chuckle a bit). This will be focused on eradicating them from your yard, and that is presuming that they found it a good place to live (usually only a small chance, and that is if you live right on the ocean’s doorstep, in a marshy area, or in the desert.).

Using baking soda, salt or DE: Much like the common household flea, they are susceptible to the dehydrating power of table salt, baking soda and food grade Diatomaceous Earth. If you take any of those products and distribute it around your garden (preferably focusing on problematic areas), it will make a significant impact on their population. The links point to my flea articles, but they apply to these critters as well.

Proactively use peppermint oil: Peppermint oil works wonders at keeping sand fleas at bay. You can use it at the beach, on your beach loungers and even on the edges of your towels to send them hopping in the opposite direction. Since it can be a little expensive (depending on where you live), you can dilute it in a carrier oil and use it like that. Also, please be careful of using it around cats as it is rather dangerous for them.

Get some beneficial nematodes: As shown in this article about nematodes, these microscopic non-segmented worms are great at hunting down and killing a variety of harmful insects, and this includes sand fleas. You can usually find them at garden shops, or just order from an online vendor (such as Amazon). From my experience, this can sort out an infestation in less than 2 weeks, which is rather impressive.

In Conclusion, and a quick summary of this guide

Life is hectic, so for those of you who don’t have time to go through every section of this article (although I do recommend it, it took me a long time to create this content, alright? 😉 ), this section will provide a quick summary of the main points.

Sand fleas look like tiny shrimp, are about 1mm in size, and have a light brown appearance, which makes them very different to find in loose sand. Despite their name, they are not actually fleas (or insects for that matter), but are from the crustacean family. Despite this, the females feed on blood and they can bite you or your dog, so you should to take the necessary precautions to prevent this.

Although they can be found in many parts of the world, they don’t infest every single beach. Don’t panic! Even if they are in your area, you can easily protect yourself. Please note that if you have seen horrible pictures of sand fleas burrowing into feet and causing disease, remember that this usually due to extreme neglect, or the lack of local medical services (especially in poor coastal regions).

If you are bitten, you are likely to experience at least some form of inflammation, all depending on how sensitive you are to the saliva of a sand flea. Please don’t panic, you are not going to die! I have listed a couple ways to deal with this, and if the symptoms don’t disappear after 2-3 days, you can just go see a doctor. Please resist the urge to scratch it however, as this can potentially make it infected.

If you know there are these critters in an area where you are going, ideally go during the hot period of the day (they are more interested in hiding at these times). You can also use a large towel or beach mat (a chair would also help), put on closed shoes if you are not going to swim, and lastly, use the DIY spray (mentioned here) to keep them away from your legs and feet.

Sand fleas are nasty little creatures, but don’t let them keep you away from your favorite holiday destination. The risk can be managed with the steps shown in this article, and even if you or your dog are bitten, it’s easy to reduce the inflammation and eliminate the itching (just don’t ignore it for an extended period of time). That about wraps this topic up, than you for reading this guide, and if you have any questions or suggestions on how to manage this pest effectively, please let me know in the comments section.

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