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Generally speaking, the greatest discomfort resulting from the presence of fleas, is their bite and the intense itching that this causes. In most cases, the itchiness and red bite marks slowly disappear without any long term effects to your health.
However, because fleas are recognized disease and parasite vectors and can cause allergic reactions in more sensitive people or pets, it is important to know about the different possible diseases they can transmit.
In the U.S. the number of flea-borne disease cases is relatively minor but owing to increased international travel and the expected temperature rise due to climate change, diseases spread by flea species could affect more US citizens than before.
The most well-known flea transmitted disease is the Bubonic plague. In the 14th century, the bubonic plague (known as the “Black Death”) became an epidemic and killed 25 million people - up to 50% of the European population.
Today, the plague still occurs worldwide, with only a handful of cases each year reported in the southwestern U.S. The plague is carried by rodents and transmitted to fleas that bite them, which is how it is transferred to humans and pets.
Thankfully, successful treatment can be achieved through the use of antibiotics.
This is a rare disease in North America, but a few cases of Murine Typhus are reported each year and mostly originating in southwestern states. This disease occurs in rat-infested areas, where fleas become infected by rats.
The most common symptoms include high fever, severe headache, chills, weakness and nausea but treatment is available and patients often respond quickly.
Unfortunately, pets can bring plague or murine typhus-infected fleas into the home.
This disease is rarely diagnosed in North America but due to international travel originating from tropical regions, like West Indies, Caribbean, and Central America, where it is indigenous, it is worth knowing about this illness.
This disease is transmitted by the burrowing flea (Tunga penetrans), which is also commonly known as a chigger flea or sand flea (amongst others). It usually affects the feet, where the flea anchors itself into the skin and burrows into the epidermis. Travelers are often advised to wear shoes (not sandals) when walking across sandy areas in affected regions.
Tularemia is a potentially serious illness that occurs naturally in North America. It is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis and found in animals like rodents. It can be transferred to humans by an infected flea or tick bite.
Common symptoms include sudden fever, chills, diarrhea, joint pain and gradual weakness.
Tularemia is not infectious but medical attention is required to treat the illness and antibiotics are offered as treatment.
Flea saliva can cause skin dermatitis in humans, which usually appears on patches of skin as itchy bumps or a rash.
Some people can have asthmatic-type reactions when they inhale flea feces.
Pets can also react to flea bites and will commonly develop a flea hypersensitivity or flea-bite dermatitis. As a result, animals may develop crusty lesions and may constantly scratch at their skin, often leading to fur loss.
Fleas are known to transmit parasites, such as tapeworm, which primarily affect pets. Adult fleas infected with tapeworm may be accidentally ingested by cats or dogs during grooming.
Your local veterinarian will be able to treat your animal for tapeworms and fleas.
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