Sand Fly Bites & Prevention

Of all the insects that bite human’s sand flies are probably the most widespread and definitely one of the most irritating.

Known over the world by a host of names including sandflies, noseeums, no-see-ums, nicnics, nic nics, hop-a-long, biting midge, punkie, punky, sandfly, sand flea, sand fly, black flies, black gnats, manta blanca, palomilla, asa branca, quemadores and pringadores these are the colloquial names for the small insects that bite and irritate and are capable of discomfort hugely disproportionate to their size.

sandfly
Ceratopogonidae

There are a thousands of variations of small biting insects but we are interested in the 1.5 - 4.0mm family of Ceratopogonidae who have piercing and sucking mouthparts although only the female feeds on blood.

People in Australia are most likely to encounter sand flies in problem numbers around tidal zones, lagoons, estuaries and mangrove swamps.

Sand fly bites often occur before the victim even realizes a potential risk. Small and hard to see (no-see-ums) it may take hours or until the following day until an irritated, itching local reaction occurs.

One old wives tale or myth suggests that sand flies create the annoying welts and lesions seen on humans by urinating on them. Sand flies may well urinate on people but it does not cause the common reaction seen on human skin. This is caused by the BITE.

Allergens

The female sand fly bites humans in order to get protein from the blood - necessary for egg laying and reproductive cycles. The bite involves the injection of saliva containing an anti-coagulant, making it easier for the flea to draw blood from its host. The saliva contains allergens that trigger the body’s immune system and red welts and lesions develop. In Australia sand flies are unlikely to transmit disease although they are problematic in more northern countries like the Philippines.

Sand fly activity is heaviest at sunrise and sunset (normal feeding times for most things) and reputedly virulent nearing and on the full moon, although there is no evidence to prove this. You are probably better off concentrating on other mythological phenomena like werewolves and vampires around the full moon and just developing an overall strategy for sand flies.

Affects Some More than Others

Sand flies seem to affect some people more than others. Often one or two people will react to the bites extremely badly while others in a group will only present with mild irritation. It may be that humans are capable of developing a natural tolerance and resistance with repeated exposure or it may be simply that one persons immune system reacts differently than the next.

Many compounds are reported to be both repellent and cure for the bite of the sand fly and many of the things on the list below have slipped into popular culture and bush mythology.

List of Repellents
  • Eucalyptus Oil
  • 90% to 100% concentration of DEET.
  • Coconut Oil
  • Avocado Oil mixed with Dettol
  • Chinese Herbal Oil
  • Orange Peel
  • Listerine
  • Tiger Balm
  • Eucalipto
  • Viks Vapor Rub
  • Lemon Juice
  • Lime juice
  • Any Citrus Juice
  • The inside of Banana Peel – applied by rubbing
  • Vinegar.
  • Essential Lavender Oil
  • 1 part Methylated Spirits, 1 part Baby Oil, 1 part Dettol
  • Tee Tree Oil
  • Coconut Oil
  • Vitamin B
  • Marmite, Promite, Vegemite - anything with high Vitamin B content
  • Vitaman B1
  • Vitaman B6
  • Garlic - taken orally and applied locally
  • Berocca
  • Crushed leaves from the Ngaio Tree
List of Remedies
  • Soap
  • Calamine Lotion
  • Rub with Garlic
  • Baking Soda and Water - make a paste and spread it over bites
  • Topical Anaesthetic
  • Application of Urine (?)
  • Ibuprofen Gel
  • Hydrocortisone Cream 1%
  • Xylocaine Gel 2%
  • Vinegar
  • Steroid Cream
  • Essential Lavender Oil
  • Antihistamine
  • Hydrogen Peroxide & Betadine – equal parts to dissolve scabs
  • Tea Tree Oil – dab on bites
  • Avon ‘Skin So Soft’
  • Aloe Vera
  • Toothpaste
  • Onion - rub bites 30 mins before having a shower
  • Hydrocortisone Cream
  • Salty Water – allowed to air dry and form a crust
  • Moist Aspro Tablet – rub affected areas
  • Turmeric Root – apply by rubbing
Facts

The Department of Medical Entomology at Sydney University states that - “There are no known efficient methods of controlling biting midges” (sandflies) and “irritation associated with bites may be alleviated with anti-pruritic preparations, but severe reactions may require medical treatment with antihistamines.”

The Byron Bay Council states that –“no effective treatment process exists to prevent these insects breeding and travelling to the nearest “blood meal”…the best remedies for such pests appear to be to keep residences from being located close to breeding sites. Only topical repellents and screening of buildings can provide a measure of protection to humans.”

What to Do

So it seems that the best cure is prevention. Sand Flies cluster down low on the outward branches and limbs of vegetation waiting for passing prey. Consequently the first areas of attack are exposed legs and ankles followed by other extremities like the hands and arms and neck and face.

Covering these areas can help reduce biting although sand flies are, of course, found in hot coastal environs where the wearing of light summer clothing is preferable.

Try whatever natural remedy works the best for you from the list above. If it seems to work for you while others get bitten then well and good, although it is more likely that you have a better natural resistance. If you are one of the unlucky people who get devoured and react badly then you can really only hope your resistance will develop and in the meantime avoid being bitten and quickly clean and disinfect any bite sites.

Sand flies seem to dislike windy areas, so keep yourself moving and congregate in the breeze. It has been reported that these insects have a preference for darker colours which contain and radiate more heat and help sand flies track victims through infrared detection. Plausible but unproven. Wearing light coloured clothing is a reasonable defence against mosquito bites and being cooler in hot weather - there is nothing to lose.

Be aware that dawn and dusk are the high risk times. By taking cover for an hour at twilight you may avoid days of irritation.

The consumption of vitamin B has never been proven to help repel sand flies or mosquito’s but if you are enjoying a holiday in an infested region then your lifestyle may benefit from a few additional vitamins anyway.

DEET seems to be the chemical that continually raises its head as the best defence against fly type biting insects. It was developed in 1946 following the experience of American soldiers involved in jungle warfare and was again used in Vietnam.

It’s an entirely personal decision whether you want to cover your body in a chemical developed by the U.S. Military, nearly 70 years ago, with the scientific name N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide.


Update: Warren from the Broome Hospital sent us in an interesting note about their treatment for sandfly bites (Broome and the Pilbara and Kimberley regions in general have a widespread health issue with sand flies).

Warren writes - "1. You mention the myth of the moon - it's actually correct! Sand flies are much more common on spring tides and not neap tides. The extra movement in the tides stirs them into action and as we know, tides are affected by the moon.

2. One of the best treatments that we use in Broome Hospital (where I work) is heat… usually from a very hot shower, as hot as you can take it for about 5 minutes will neutralise the toxin causing the histamine response. If you get it early, you may only need one application of heat, but if not a couple of times a day may be necessary!

Hope this helps you and your readers!"

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