What is a Sea Flea?
There is much confusion about what people mean when they refer to a sea flea. While there is a marine creature of the Leptostraca family found in the waters around Australia that is called a sea flea, more often the term is actually used to describe the jellyfish larvae that can make sea bathers break out is a rash.
The Leptostracan sea flea is described as being around 8 mm long and being colorless creatures with striking red eyes. These sea fleas have a carapace covering the base of their legs, a rostrum enclosing the staked eyes and a narrowing abdomen that terminates in a forked tail. This species is said to live in muddy conditions and feed on organic matter and are generally found deep in the sea floor. The chances of random encounter with these sea fleas are very slim.
The other creature, the jellyfish larvae, which is mistakenly called a sea flea, is actually more likely to affect a swimmer in the beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea or in the Florida coast. These jellyfish are usually found from March through August and tend to settle near the edges of bathing suits and trigger an allergic rash. This jellyfish is known by the scientific name Linuche unguiculata and is sometimes referred to as the thimble jellyfish. The larvae are described as looking like finely ground grains of pepper and so they are obviously not easy to spot while in the water. It is said that a person's swimming suit serves as the net that traps these creatures and facilitates skin contact. People usually feel a reaction anywhere between 4 and 24 hours after the initial exposure. There are seldom any adult jellyfish in the waters nearby to serve as warning and so very often those who get the rash are perplexed by these creatures and hence the rash is thought to be caused by a sea flea or sea lice.
Those who are bitten by the sea flea for the first time may feel anything from mild stinging to nausea and vomiting. There are those who have reported headaches and flu like symptoms including head aches, muscle and joint pain and an overall inertia or malaise. Those who have the encounter more than once seem to feel only a mild irritation in subsequent attacks although doctors are likely to advise those who have a severe reaction the first time to avoid going in the water all together. Those who are bitten by the jellyfish larvae may need to calamine lotions or other topical creams to deal with the itchiness. These will provide temporary relief and help in dealing with the rash.
Avoidance of sea water is the only way to really be sure of not encountering the sea flea but there are some precautions one can take to minimize risk. Wearing wet suits rather than bathing suits will reduce skin exposure and hence reduce the likelihood of an intense attack. It is also a good idea to thoroughly rinse swim suits after being in the sea as this is a way of making sure that your air-dried suit is not continuing to carry some trapped sea flea. T-shirts are said to provide additional fabric for the creature to get caught in and are on the whole not a great safety mechanism in dealing with jellyfish larvae. Some of the other names given to this sea flea itch are bather's eruption, seabather's itch, sea poisoning and ocean itch.
If you are headed to a beach where you are likely to encounter a sea flea, make sure to pack some anti-itch creams and keep an eye open for these tiny creatures especially if you see any signs of a rash setting in. By and large it is an inconvenience rather than a major health concern to be bitten by one of these water creatures.