Fleas are small, bloodsucking insects that feed on humans and animals. Fleas produce bites that can result in severe itching and inflammation, and flea bites may potentially spread a number of serious diseases. Fleas cut through skin using powerful jaws, inject an anticoagulant contained in their saliva, and continue to drink until full. The anticoagulant, which prevents the blood from clotting, is responsible for producing many of the symptoms of a flea bite. Adult fleas do not need to feed very often and can survive a month or longer without a fresh meal of blood.
Flea bites are more than a nuisance. They can result in skin infections, allergic reactions, and can potentially transmit serious diseases from one host to another. Flea bites in animals and children may itch so severely that they result in broken or raw skin, bleeding, and infection if the irritated skin becomes contaminated with bacteria. Flea infestations are incredibly difficult to eradicate, and they generally require multiple treatments of the interior and exterior of the home, thorough cleaning of carpets, furniture, pet bedding and treatment of any animals living inside the home. Although most illnesses caused by flea bites can be successfully treated, the prevention of flea bites and flea infestation costs pet owners hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars each year.
In most people, flea bites produce only minor symptoms. The most common symptoms of a flea bite include a small red bump that may itch for several days. Severe reactions may also include a rash, a halo of red around the bite, severe itching and hives. Flea bites typically occur on the lower legs and ankles and around the waist. Areas where tight clothing is worn, or where elastic bands fit snugly against the skin, are also frequent sites for flea bites. Children are most susceptible to developing a severe reaction to the bites of fleas. Flea bites in animals cause similar symptoms to those in humans. Pet owners may first become aware that their pet is infested with fleas when the animal begins scratching constantly. Numerous bites may cause such severe itching and scratching that pets may lose hair as a result.
Although flea bites are typically not more than a source of itching and irritation, they may lead to serious infections when scratched. Moreover, because fleas feed off various hosts, they have the potential to transmit disease from one host to another. Fleas are responsible for the transmission of bubonic plague and murine typhus, and some fleas are known to transmit tapeworm larvae. Any flea bite that appears to be infected or does not heal needs prompt medical attention and possible treatment with antibiotics. If symptoms of severe illness develop following a flea bite, any treating health care provider should be informed of the patient's history of flea bites.
Prevention of flea bites involves the eradication of fleas from pets and the home. Household pets, such as cats and dogs, are the primary carriers of fleas in most developed countries. Pet bedding should be washed frequently in hot water, pets should be treated regularly with over-the-counter or prescription medication to prevent flea infestation, and any other sources of fleas in the home, such as carpets or furniture, should be treated to prevent additional fleas from hatching and laying eggs. Insecticide can be used around the exterior walls of the home to create a barrier against fleas, and severe indoor infestations may need to be treated using a home fogger. If these measures are not sufficient, professional treatment by an exterminator may be required. Treatment of flea bites is typically with an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, which will speed healing and relieve itching. Bites that are slow to heal or appear infected should be treated with antibiotics.
Five types of true fleas exist in the world, and all of them bite and feed on blood. The two types of fleas that are best known are the Ctenocephalides canis, or dog flea, and the Ctenocephalides felis, also called the cat flea. The other three types of fleas are the Xenopsylla cheopis, or rat flea, the Echidnophaga gallinacea, or hen flea, and the Pulex irritans, or human flea. All five flea types cause similar bites and have the potential to transmit disease between different species. Human fleas, cat fleas and dog fleas cause most human bites.