Take a trip to a sandy beach, or set up a camp in a sandy desert and you may soon find yourself covered in hundreds of little bites. You might immediately blame mosquitoes, yet you will soon discover that the bites you have are far itchier. Though you may blame the mosquito for your problems, your bites are coming from something that loves the sand.
Let me introduce you to the sand flea. Now, do not be confused by the larger crustacean, which burrows under the sand after an ocean wave crashes. Those sand fleas only eat plankton. The sand flea you need to worry about is actually a tiny biting fly. In some parts of the United States they are called sand gnats, other parts they are called sand flies, whatever you call them they are after your blood.
Beware the Bite
The itchy red bite mark isn’t the only thing you need to worry about. If you are in a tropical region, the sand fly can carry a terrible disease. If one of those bites turns into a skin ulcer with a raised border, you have leishmaniasis. Leishmaniasis is caused by a nasty little protozoan. When the sand fly takes a bite of your skin, a few protozoans escape into your blood. You will soon begin to see a horrible skin lesion. The sore can last anywhere from a few months to a year. If more than one bite contains the protozoan, your skin lesions will be widespread enough to resemble leprosy.
It Gets Worse
Cutaneous leishmaniasis (the open skin ulcer) will leave you with an ugly scar, yet there is another form of the disease that can be fatal. Visceral leishmaniasis, also known as black fever, occurs when the protozoans migrate and invade your liver, spleen, or bone marrow. If left untreated it will be fatal. Visceral leishmaniasis is the second largest parasitic killer after malaria.
It can all be avoided
There are no vaccines for this disease. If you find yourself in a tropical region, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of getting leishmaniasis, all of which revolve around not getting bit by the sand fly.
- Avoid being outside during dawn and dusk, which are the active times of the sand fly.
- Use repellent. Make sure to get a good repellent that contains DEET.
- Wear long clothing. The idea of wearing long shirts and long pants in the tropics might sound horrible, but if you are in an area known to have sand flies, you might want to suffer through it.
- Tuck in your shirt. Your mother will be so proud. The idea is to reduce the potential bite areas.
- Sleep in well air-conditioned areas. Sounds good, sand flies hate the cold.
- Sleep with a bug net. Remember, sand flies are smaller than mosquitoes, make certain you have tight-weave netting.
Though the threat of leishmaniasis from sand fly bites only occurs in tropical regions, if you take the proper precautions your tropical trip can still be illness free. Just remember to tuck in that shirt.