Itchy and Scratchy: Bed Bugs, Sand Flies, and Other Travel Hazards


Gorgeous sunset at the Lake Taupo with Ryan playing skipping stones
Gorgeous sunset at the Lake Taupo with Ryan playing skipping stones

This picture shows you one of the most beautiful sunsets we’ve ever watched. Let me tell you about it. We were driving across the North Island of New Zealand. The stretch of the giant Lake Taupo was in our west, when it was near the time of sun to rest. The sky was clear, and from the road we could see nice black sand running along the lake with a grassy area to park our car. I guess many of you, given the same situation, will choose to stop driving and jump in lake while enjoying the sunset. Well, that was exactly what we did.

After we parked, we changed into our bathing suits, privacy provided by a sarong. Then we went splashing down into the cold refreshing water. Ryan stayed in the water longer to skip stones, while I chose to enjoy the scenery from the sandy beach. Just before the sun started to slip past the horizon, Ryan joined me on the beach to watch the brilliant sunset. We sat on our sarongs watching the sun’s colours transform the lake’s surface turn into a mirror of shimmering gold. Perhaps a poet could say it better, but that was one of the most beautiful sunsets we’ve ever seen.

So, what does this have to do with itching? Something that my camera couldn’t capture was that there were hundreds of sand flies swarming around where we sat! The sunset was so gorgeous that we sacrificed ourselves to be eaten alive by these nasty sand flies. I don’t know why, but those sand flies mostly ignored Ryan and came after me: I got 20 bites for every 1 bite he got. As the sun was slowly sliding down the horizon, I was constantly slapping my feet, legs, body, and arms frantically trying to remove these little monsters. Despite that, there were tens of them pestering me at any given time. So much for watching a beautiful sunset. Once the sun had disappeared from the horizon, we jetted up from our sarongs and ran to the car. I scratched my whole itchy body frantically almost all the time. I felt the sand flies were still biting me when I changed, but maybe I was just being paranoid. Very soon, I totally covered up my body with clothes, armor against these little monsters’ attack.

One of many insects on the beach of Lake Taupo that day
One of many insects on the beach of Lake Taupo that day, can you spot it in the picture?

As we drove to Taupo City, I kept scratching myself furiously. I generously applied (read: drenched) my itch relief liquid onto the bites. It soothed a bit for a short time, but not much a help for the long run unless I keep pouring that on my skin. In the motel I checked that there were more than 50 little sting pricks all along my body, with my feet being the worst.

This was the worst insect itch I’ve ever had. A week or two later, even though it had gotten a bit better, the itchiness of some punctured spots were still intense. Four weeks after that, the itch had become much milder, but still noticeable. Little scratches here and there were still needed. Yes, I know I should not have scratched, but it was so dang itchy, I couldn’t control myself. Believe it or not, now, three months from that, I still have a few of the itching marks. Even though rarely, these spots still give me mild itchy sensations sometimes.

The Itchy & Scratchy Show
The Itchy & Scratchy Show (copyright by Fox)

Being a traveler, we are exposed to various skin problems, more so than when we are staying at home. Bedbugs from mysterious beds are a classic problem for backpackers. Nature, while it is beautiful, could send you various insects and prickly plants to give you hell-scale itchiness. I remember one time I was in the wild, I was leaning on grass for taking picture of gorgeous cliff. Apparently my right leg was landing on a plant covered with tiny needles. The sharp sensation I got made me stunned in pain for a minute. Thank goodness it was quickly passed after I removed the needles from my leg.

It’s not all about plants and insects. If you are a cheap backpacker like me who likes to wash clothes by hand in the sink, and you happen to have sensitive skin like me as well, those harsh detergents could give you itchy skin or even rashes, while washing with soap or shampoo doesn’t give the cleanest result. Even random body soaps and lotions provided by places that we stay at could irritate my skin! Also living on the road, general hygiene is sometimes, if not often, compromised, leading to various skin problems.

How do I try to minimize these problems? We are traveling light so we can’t bring the whole range of skin care products with us. For me, these are a few items that I need:

  • Benzocaine containing itching relief spray – Stinging when you apply it (I like that somehow!), but it reduces the itchiness quite well, at least for a period of time. I also have the creme kind.
  • Dove bar soap – The only bar soap recommended by my dermatologist for my super sensitive skin, and generally available in many countries that I’ve visited. Even my face skin loves this soap.
  • Topicort cream with active ingredients desoximetasone – Fighting dermatitis type of rashes, for example those cause by mysterious body soaps, lotions and detergent. Working really well but you need a prescription to buy this.
  • Tea tree oil – new member of my med pouch. I thought it only helps problem of acne, but Francoise from the Cult of Travel mentioned the magic of this oil, in fighting insect bites itchiness and even dandruff! Now I’m searching for a crowd of sand flies to bite me to confirm the potency of tea tree oil!
  • Lotion - My skin is less problematic when it’s not dried out. I love trying new lotions, even though unfortunately some of them cause skin irritation to me.
  • Mild laundry paper soap and a pair gloves – To do manual laundry, I choose mild detergent in paper sheets form by Muji because it’s quite mild in hand, and gives cleaner result than shampoo or liquid body soap. When even with this mild detergent my skin is still not happy, I will use gloves when doing my laundry.
Skin friendly items from my stash
Skin friendly items from my stash

Another popular item for backpackers that I don’t have is insect repellent. I hear DEET is working really well but unfortunately harsh on skin. There are various DEET alternatives like Autan lotion that containing icaridin as the active ingredient, and eucalyptus or citronella oil based repellent. I will get one of these insect repellent before going to places that are famous for their mosquitoes. It was just that when we were in New Zealand, we didn’t know there’d be such vicious little sand flies waiting for us on such a beautiful beach.

So, what about you? Have you had an itchy and scratchy problem while traveling? Tell me your worst! And also, share your secrets in preventing and combating skin itchiness.

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43 Responses to “Itchy and Scratchy: Bed Bugs, Sand Flies, and Other Travel Hazards”

  1. Doris
    13 September 2012 at 12:52 am #

    Husband and I recently returned from Sandals Negril – Jamaica. Couple days after we got home we both started breaking out with little itchy bug bites all over our legs and arms. Now 2 weeks later and still breaking out. Strange delayed reaction.

  2. Todd W. Shaffer
    5 February 2014 at 10:10 am #

    Hey Dina, I had a similar issue on a hike down in Arkansas with these fun little creatures called “Chigger Mites.” You don’t feel them when they attack, but about two hours after their initial feast it feels like mosquitos attacking you. Then the fun begins. For the next three weeks I was ridden with really awful looking, oozing bites that ranged from downright painful to unbearably itchy.

    I learned this trick from an ex-girlfriend that was allergic to gluten. When she would knowingly or unknowingly ingest wheat she would take anti-histamines (benadryl) which would stop the allergic reaction. So I tried this after two days of suffering and bingo, the itching stopped. Since it’s deactivating the histamines from within your body it’s a lot more effective than a topical application. Keep this in mind for the next attack!


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