San Juan, PR: Don’t let the sand flies bite

Caribbean, Dispatches from the Road, Health & Safety — By on May 8, 2009 at 8:00 am

San Juan Puerto RicoWhen LG contributor Molly Fergus went on vacation to San Juan, Puerto Rico this past month, she figured that she might pick up a souvenir or two-but not zillions of them in the form of tiny, itchy bites. You can avoid her scratchy fate by reading on…


With some vacation around Easter, a few friends and I headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico for quality beach time. We lounged, stared at aquamarine water and generally recharged.

I’ve accepted that my skin is not meant for the beach. I’m very Irish, very pale, and pretty freckled, so I don’t go near the sun without a substantial supply of SPF 45. What I didn’t know? Sand flies – tiny, practically invisible crustaceans that live on shore and jump up to feed on bare human ankles and legs – also like my thin, white skin.

We spent the entire week enjoying the beach, which also meant hanging out on the sand in the evening – when sand flies like to eat dinner. I didn’t notice any of the bites until our last day at the beach, when small, white lumps rose on my skin. In just one day, my legs were covered from thigh to ankle in itchy red spots that made me look measled or chicken poxed.

I chalked it up to mosquitoes, until I few back to the states, started googling, and caught an episode of House. The main character had jaunted to Rio de Janeiro a few years before she came down with respiratory failure and a ruptured spleen. The diagnosis? Visceral Leishmaniasis, a disease with a two-year incubation period that infected sand flies can pass on to humans. It typically causes unexplained fevers, kidney failure, liver damage and spleen problems.

For a few scratchy, painful moments as I thought about Dr. House’s diagnosis, I had to wonder if international travel is worth it. Not because I actually thought I had contracted Visceral Leishmaniasis (although, if I develop a sudden, inexplicable fever and spleen issues in the next couple of years at least I’ll know what’s up), but because I started to think about every other disease that could kill me abroad.

If I had never heard of these really common sand flies, what else is floating around out there? What if I get cholera from ceviche in Peru? Or dengue fever, which has no vaccine? Suddenly, Montezuma’s Revenge or Bali Belly doesn’t sound so bad.

Like any good online hypochondriac, I googled and perused health advisories while watching a few episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations to keep my travel gusto strong. (How is that guy still alive?)

Somewhere during the googling, I read that sandflies in Texas also carry forms of leishmaniasis. We’re never really safe, so I booked a ticket to visit one of my best friends in Peru this summer. Because, yes, of course it’s worth it. But next time I’m bringing lots of DEET.

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  • workhard says:

    Always visit a proper doctor while travelling. They will guide u and give proper medication and health tips..

    Boise Homes

  • She Traces says:

    Molly, you’ve just help solve my mystery! I was at the beach this weekend and thought it would be romantic to lie on the sand at night!!! I didn’t know I was exposing myself to the ravage beatings of the sand flies. Man, the perfect follow up to this post is how to treat these bites once you’ve been assaulted. On to the Google searches now…