I was driving my daughter home from dance class the other day when we passed a dread-locked transient waiting at a bus stop. As we were waiting for the stoplight to turn green, we watched as this destitute looking individual furiously scratched the back of his neck.
My daughter asked, “what’s wrong with him daddy?”
I jokingly responded, “Maybe he has fleas… Just like our cat Cosmo did that one time.”
While my snide comment to my daughter was tongue-in-cheek, more of a reflection of the hippie’s appearance, it did get me thinking:
“Can people catch fleas just like a common house cat?”
“If so, can those fleas be spread to the other people on the bus that this guy was about to board?”
Do Fleas Bite People?
Technically, Fleas Don’t Bite
First off, it’s important to note, that technically fleas do not bite. The mouth parts of fleas are tube like, adopted for piercing skin and sucking blood—Kind of like a mosquito. There is no easy or familiar colloquial term that describes flea or mosquito feeding as “stabbing” or “piercing,” so we just use the term bite.
Do Fleas Bite People?
The short answer is yes. Any mammal is a food source. Most types of fleas, with the exception of the human flea (Pulex irritans) prefer the taste of animal blood over human blood. Even then, human fleas will still dine on multiple species of animals from monkey to chicken; and they are extremely rare in North America.
The most common domestic flea pest is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis). The cat flea is the predominant flea on both dogs and cats, and readily bites humans in the home. Most flea species have a preferred host, but will bite and feed any mammal if they are hungry enough. If there are no pets around for a flea to dine on, then a human may be their only option for a blood meal.
Can People Catch Fleas?
Can people catch fleas like a common house cat can? Another short answer here… Yes! Just like pet fleas enjoy animal hair, they enjoy human hair as well. Hair provides warmth, comfort, food, and protection for the flea. The good news is that fleas can be washed out of hair with a warm shower, and a little extra shampoo. Sometimes, more extensive measures are needed to completely solve the problem.
How Fleas Are Spread
Fleas are most commonly spread from your pets. While cats and dogs are primarily the hosts, fleas will also feed on rats, mice, chickens, rabbits, etc. When a pet owner is treating a flea infestation, the fleas may jump onto someone/something else to avoid the treatment or pesticide.
When it comes to people being bitten by fleas, one of the most common scenarios that us pest control professionals hear about is when the victim moves into an apartment or house that had once had a pet with a flea infestation; and where the pet is now gone. Like I mentioned before, if there are no pets around for a flea to dine on, then a human may be their only option for a blood meal. The new tenants are now the flea’s new meal source.
In general, fleas will not spread as frequently or easily as a bedbug. If you were to share a bus or a bed with an animal or even a person that has fleas; you can catch them too. Nothing a little hygiene (shower) can’t fix though. Remember, fleas prefer animal blood to human blood.
Flea Bite Warning Signs & Symptoms
Flea bite reactions vary in humans from very extreme to totally non-existent, depending on immune reaction to the flea’s saliva. Most people will not notice the actual flea bite. This is because fleas inject a natural numbing agent into a victim’s skin when they bite.
Most people that are bitten by fleas will experience small red bumps that rise above the skin—Kind of like a mosquito bite. Just like mosquito bites, these red bumps will itch. If a victim’s skin is sensitive, these bites can quickly turn into a rash. If a flea bite victim has insect allergies, they may experience addition swelling, tingling, numbness, and difficulty breathing. In such cases, medical attention is a must.
Diseases Spread By Fleas
Pet fleas rarely carry dangerous diseases, but they can spread bacteria that will make you very sick. One disease that has been transmitted by fleas is endemic typhus (Rickettsia typhi). Human infection occurs because of flea-fecal contamination of the bites on human skin. This infection is commonly treated with antibiotics. Symptoms of endemic typhus include headache, fever, muscle pain, joint pain, nausea and vomiting. Additionally, 40–50% of patients will develop a discrete rash six days after the onset of signs. Up to 45% of victims will develop neurological signs such as confusion, stupor, seizures or imbalance.
Fleas can also cause tapeworms. People don’t get tapeworms from the actual flea bite; they have to eat the fleas themselves to get infected with tapeworms. This isn’t an appetizing thought, but someone has to actually eat an infected flea.
After doing a little research I can now answer the question that my daughter inspired: “Do Fleas Bite People?”
- Yes, that dread-locked transient that we saw boarding the bus may have fleas.
- Yes, those fleas can spread to others.
- Yes, those fleas can feed on his blood.
- Those fleas can cause disease or tapeworms, although it’s rare.
- If he does have fleas, a hot shower will go a long way in solving the problem.