What Are Jiggers? Facts And Treatments For These Ferocious Fleas

Ritwik Bhuyan
Mar 07, 2023 By Ritwik Bhuyan
Originally Published on Oct 14, 2021
Edited by Jade Scott
Fact-checked by Sakshi Raturi
Sandhopper moving on sand on a beach
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Age: 3-18
Read time: 6.6 Min

Jiggers are small parasitic fleas that are known to burrow into the skin of a host before laying eggs.

These parasites dig deep into the skin of warm-blooded hosts and a scalpel is needed to cut them out of the skin. Jiggers are nearly invisible at their young stage, but within a few days, they get bigger, and this leads to a jigger infestation.

Jiggers lay eggs and can infect both the hands and legs of a host. Commonly known as a jigger flea, jigger, chigoe flea, sand flea, or nigua, this parasitic insect is known by the scientific name of Tunga penetrans.

This insect is found in tropical and sub-tropical climates all over the world. Jiggers, due to the nature of their infestation, are often confused with the mites called chiggers.

Jiggers are native to Central America and South America but have been introduced to sub-Saharan Africa by humans unknowingly. Apart from the scientific name Tunga penetrans, the species is also known as Sarcopsylla penetrans and Pulex penetrates.

A jigger infestation can seriously hamper the well-being of the host and a parasitical infestation of Tunga penetrans is known as tungiasis. Infections have been seen in both humans and animals.

The jigger flea or Tunga penetrans first appears as a small black dot in the skin.

As the female jigger flea grows and the abdomen is filled with eggs and blood (the shape and size of a pea), a bump is seen forming under the skin. This bump is very painful and itchy and can make walking and doing any chores really difficult.

The females of the jigger fleas have a short life and die after releasing the eggs.

To do this, female jigger fleas burrow into the skin while the back end still sticks out from the body of the host. If tungiasis is left untreated, it can lead to other infections, and in severe cases, even amputation has been seen.

Although people try to get the jigger fleas out of the skin, the foot, or hand by pins or other sharp objects, this is not recommended because these practices are not at all hygienic.

Doing this can lead to other infections that can harm the host more.

Removal of the jigger or chigoe flea with a dirty needle can leave a small pit in the skin which may later develop into a sore.

This may lead to toes filled with pus, secondary infections, ulceration, inflammation, fibrosis, gangrene, lymphangitis, amputation, another disease, or in the end, death. Being careful is the right way to go as people should regularly check each foot and every toe when in infested sand areas of tropical and sub-tropical regions.

Chigoe flea (Tunga penetrans) loves a host's feet as they remain in constant touch with the affected sand in countries with infestations, giving them the jigger the perfect opportunity to attach to the skin.

As many confuse the infection of chiggers with the jigger flea, we want to help you differentiate. The chigger is a parasitic mite; a minute arachnid.

In contrast, the jigger flea or Tunga penetrans is a flea from the order Siphonaptera. The chiggers burrow into the skin of the host and feed on the skin cells.

These mites (adults or larvae) never leave the body of the host. Only the adults of Tunga penetrans feed on mammals and the female fleas live the rest of their life inside the host's body.

If you enjoyed this article, why not also read find out the answers to what are grubs and what are mango worms here on Kidadl?

What does a jigger look like?

The jigger flea is the smallest known flea in the world, but once infected, it can cause pain and discomfort in your life.

At only 0.04 in (0.1 cm), this small flea is most recognized in its parasitic form. When the flea burrows under the outermost layer of the epidermis in the skin, the flea can be 1 cm in length.

When the infestation (tungiasis) begins, there might be a lot of itching and irritation and this period lasts for around the first one or two days. Soon, the area around the jigger calluses and becomes sensitive. The female flea's abdomen fills with blood and eggs later in their life cycle.

This swelling can lead to a lot of pressure in the nearby blood vessels and nerves which can seriously implicate the health of the host. Although the infestations generally occur in the foot area or the hands, the pea-sized bumps can also be seen in secondary infested locations all over the body.

Affected areas can be recognized by a swollen lesion with a black dot in the center.

Other bacteria might enter the body through the area where the jigger entered from. This can lead to abscess, necrosis, gangrene, or even death.

A woman sprays a remedy for mosquito and flea bites on her legs bitten by insects

How do you get jiggers?

Jiggers are present and have a wide distribution in the Caribbean, Central America, South America, India, and tropical sub-Saharan Africa. They live up to 2 in (5 cm) below the sand.

Jigger fleas cannot develop below sand as the surface is too hot for the eggs and larvae, and also due to lack of oxygen. Like other fleas, males are mobile after a blood meal.

However, female jiggers burrow first into the skin of the host. The skin shows the caudal tip of the abdomen through the orifice of the skin legion.

The flea can easily enter the host's skin through the sand. The females feed off the blood vessels and the hole in the legion allows them to breathe, defecate, and lay eggs.

Almost all tungiasis legions occur on the foot, however, there have been instances of their presence in other parts of the body too. A toe of a foot is the favorite place for this disease-bringing flea.

Once the female burrows inside the skin, reproduction takes place. The males die after copulation. In the following two weeks, the abdomen of the females fills up with hundreds of eggs. This creates pain and irritation in the skin.

The eggs are released through the orifice and hatch on the ground. The female dies and rots causing more disease and other health issues in the skin of the host. The eggs hatch and mature into adults and infestations begin again with a new life cycle.

How do you cure jiggers?

When the lesions with the black spots start appearing, you won't notice much pain or irritation. A small bump then appears in that area and that's when the real pain begins.

The white bump will get larger, and redness and inflammation will start occurring around the bump. Although many people get better naturally from this foot infection, most people would need to call their clinic for support.

It is better to seek medical attention to eliminate the chances of all possible diseases. The fleas can be removed from the skin using a sterile needle.

Surgery also might be an option if the progression of the infestation grows. It is important to be current with your tetanus vaccination as infections might elevate without the tetanus vaccine. Oral medications might also be able to help reduce the pain and infections.

Lastly, it is important to wear shoes at all times. Wearing shoes while walking on infested sandy areas will not allow the fleas to get inside your skin.

Are jiggers painful?

The lesions formed by the flea burrowing into the skin can be really painful and will not allow you to walk freely.

Although the small black dot appearing in the skin due to the female burrowing is not painful, a few days later, when the female lays eggs and fills with blood, white lesions will appear which will be really painful and itchy.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for what are jiggers then why not take a look at what are flies attracted to or orange animals.

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Written by Ritwik Bhuyan

Bachelor of Arts specializing in English

Ritwik Bhuyan picture

Ritwik BhuyanBachelor of Arts specializing in English

A skilled content writer, Ritwik holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Delhi University. He has refined his writing abilities through his past experience at PenVelope and his current role at Kidadl. In addition to his proficiency in writing, Ritwik has pursued his passion for flying by achieving CPL training and becoming a licensed commercial pilot. This diverse skill set highlights his commitment to exploring multiple fields. Ritwik's experience in the aviation industry has provided him with a unique perspective and attention to detail, which he brings to his writing.

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Fact-checked by Sakshi Raturi

Postgraduate Diploma in Management

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Sakshi RaturiPostgraduate Diploma in Management

Sakshi has experience in marketing strategy, social media planning, and recruiting industry experts for capstone projects, she has displayed a commitment to enhancing their skills and knowledge. She has won multiple awards, including a Certificate of Appreciation for Creative Writing and a Certificate of Merit for Immaculate Turut, and is always seeking new opportunities to grow and develop.

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