Identifying and controlling fleas on humans

Identifying and controlling fleas on humans

In addition to mosquitoes, other barely visible bloodsuckers can torment us with their bites. Especially in the summer, many people suddenly notice fleas on themselves, usually brought in via pets. The parasites cause itchy flea bites (also called flea bites) that can appear on the skin and, less commonly, on the head and hair. To successfully fight fleas, you have to clean every corner thoroughly. How do you recognize fleas, and how do you tell if they are fleas or lice? What remedies help against the parasites, and how do you get them out of bed and at home? Read that here.

fleas in humans

There are over 2,000 different species of fleas. So, it is unsurprising that there is also a human flea (Pullex irritans). However, due to increased hygiene in living areas and on the body, human fleas are now rare in Europe. Therefore, the most common fleas in humans are cat or dog fleas. Usually, these pets bring the tiny parasites to their people – pet owners are, therefore, particularly often affected by fleas.

Even if they prefer to stay on “their” dog or “their” cat, fleas are not picky regarding the host. And so they choose people to enjoy a blood meal and then disappear again into cracks, crevices, carpets, mattresses and other hiding places.


Health hazards from fleas

Luckily, fleas no longer pose a health risk in our part of the world. But that wasn’t always the case: In the 14th century, rat fleas transmitted the plague bacteria when the plague killed 25 million people. Today, only the tropical rat fleas are dangerous in southern latitudes, as they can continue to transmit plague bacteria. Other diseases, such as murine typhus, can also be transmitted by tropical fleas.

In Europe, flea bites usually only cause an unpleasant but harmless itching. Allergic skin reactions in the form of eczema at the site of the bite can occur in dogs and cats and, more rarely, in humans. In addition, you should make sure that the flea bites are not scratched, as otherwise dirt can lead to inflammation.

Identifying fleas – what do fleas look like?

Fleas are only about two to three millimetres in size and are brownish to black. While they appear oval when viewed from the side, they appear relatively flat when viewed from above. Their powerful jumping legs, which can jump far to reach their host, are striking. Fleas don’t have wings.

Depending on environmental conditions, adult fleas live for several months, and fleas love it warm. Fleas usually become a real plague in summer and autumn, as they often infest pets in nature. Fleas can be found indoors all year round, but they cannot survive outdoors in low temperatures.

The tiny fleas can often hardly be seen with the naked eye. The best way to tell if your pet is infested with fleas is by the animal constantly scratching itself and by the characteristic flea droppings. The small, black crumbs become visible in the (light) fur or when combing (preferably with a special flea comb). To do this, you should place the animal on a light-coloured surface and then brush the fur thoroughly so that the flea excrement is removed from the fur. A clear sign of a flea infestation is when the dark crumbs turn red when rubbed on a damp paper towel.


Detect flea bites

Fleas on humans can usually be recognized by their bites. Flea bites are very itchy and can be recognized by the characteristic flea ladder, also known as flea street. This is multiple bites in a row because fleas often do “test bites” before eating their fill.

When they bite, fleas inject their saliva to prevent blood from clotting. This acts as an allergen, and the body reacts with swelling or itching. Flea bites, therefore, often cause visible thickening of the skin (hives) accompanied by redness. These can persist for several days. Visually, flea bites resemble mosquito bites, so the flea ladder is the key differentiator.

Fleas or lice?

Some parasites are particularly at home on the scalp. In principle, fleas can also appear on the hair or scalp. If the scalp is itchy and you can even see small insects in your hair, you should first think of lice.

The following characteristics can distinguish fleas and lice:

  • Fleas are brown while lice are translucent to slightly light gray. Only after sucking blood do they turn reddish-brown.
  • Fleas jump while lice crawl.
  • Fleas are much more active than lice and move around more.
  • Head lice are limited to the scalp, while flea bites can appear anywhere on the body.
  • Lice lay their eggs, also known as nits, in the hair. These whitish dots stick between the hairs near the scalp. If the scalp is infested with fleas, there are usually no or hardly any eggs to be seen.

fight fleas

It is not exactly easy to fight the lively fleas because they have enormous jumping power: the flea, which is only two millimetres in size, can quickly jump more than half a meter – a person would have to jump over the Cologne Cathedral in comparison to achieve a similar feat accomplished. This explains why fleas spread so quickly once in the home – often brought as an unwanted gift by a dog or cat.

If flea bites have already occurred in humans, the affected person should shower thoroughly and wash their hair because fleas disappear when you shower. In addition, you should always treat the environment as well. For example, wash bedding and wear clothing (if possible) at 60 degrees. If children are affected by fleas, the comfort blanket and cuddly toys should also be washed or frozen in a plastic bag in the freezer.

If you want to control fleas, you should also treat the infested pets. In veterinary practices, appropriate anti-flea agents (e.g. flea powder or sprays) can be purchased. In addition, you should wash blankets and pillows in the animals’ sleeping places at 60 degrees in the washing machine. Pads and floors where the animals lie should be vacuumed and wiped to remove flea eggs.

It should be noted that fleas lay eggs in the fur of infested pets. These eggs fall off after a few hours, and larvae form, which can spread throughout the home: in the bed, in the carpet, in upholstery, furniture, cracks and crevices. Eventually, the larvae pupate into a cocoon until they develop into the adult flea. A flea infestation is often lengthy and can last for many weeks. Consistent control is therefore essential.

If the flea infestation in the house is extreme, an exterminator should be consulted.


Means and home remedies for fleas

The itching of flea bites can be relieved with an anti-allergic ointment with a low dose of cortisoneAntihistamines in the form of tablets can also help with severe problems.

Various home remedies should also help to keep the annoying fleas at bay. These include mixtures of vinegar, water, lemon juice, and sprays with essential oils such as tea tree oil or eucalyptus oil. However, it would help if you did not use these mixtures on pets, as they find the strong odours extremely unpleasant, and some essential oils are toxic to pets. The effectiveness of essential oils against fleas is also very limited in humans, and there is no scientific evidence of their effectiveness.

In general, thoroughly washing floors, surfaces and textiles, and treating pets with suitable flea products, is a promising way of combating fleas effectively.

The best way to prevent fleas is to check pets regularly (cleaning baskets, blankets and pillows and using anti-bug products from pharmacies to prevent them).

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