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. Brian Setzer
    5 May 2010 at 6:49 pm #

    I use hydrocortisone cream for bites and itches, very effective.
    .-= Brian Setzer´s last blog ..Getting Sandy in White Sands NM =-.

    • Dina
      6 May 2010 at 3:05 am #

      Thanks Brian, I’ll keep this in mine next time I buy itch relief med!

  2. Sabina
    5 May 2010 at 9:36 pm #

    I do see the fly in that photo! Ouch! I’ve been bitten by sand fleas – also ouch – but not by sand flies.

    And I don’t have any tales of skin misery to share, I am happy to say. I should probably spend more time outdoors when I travel.

    The photo of the sunset is beautiful, by the way.

    • Dina
      6 May 2010 at 3:14 am #

      Hi Sabina! I think the sand flies and sand fleas could be the same or not, the definitions, at least according to Wiki, are quite wide. I just check it out in the page of “Sandfly”, here it is:
      “Sandflea” redirects here, but can also refer to members of the Talitridae family.
      Sandfly (or sand fly) is a colloquial name for any species or genus of flying, biting, blood-sucking Dipteran encountered in sandy areas. In the United States, sandfly may refer to certain horse flies that are also known as “greenheads” (family Tabanidae), or to members of the family Ceratopogonidae, also known in Florida and elsewhere as a sandflea, no-see-um, no-see-em, noseeum, sand gnats, granny nippers, chitras, punkie, or punky.

      I like the name “punky” and “granny nippers”, so cute, hehe

      Thanks for the comment on the sunset picture, I think that was gorgeous moment too.

    • Dina
      6 May 2010 at 3:19 am #

      And… I wonder the ones biting us are the same kind or not.. Those monsters biting me were so mean!

  3. Jay
    5 May 2010 at 11:26 pm #

    Just wanted to say that is a beautiful sunset. I’d love to check it out in person one day.
    .-= Jay´s last blog ..Making Changes in your Life One at a Time =-.

    • Dina
      6 May 2010 at 3:16 am #

      Thanks, Jay! The whole North Island of New Zealand is beautiful indeed. There are a lot of unique and great stuff to see around the Lake Taupo, I’m sure you will enjoy being there!

  4. Debbie
    6 May 2010 at 10:32 am #

    Hi, I love when I’m on the same page with other bloggers on the same day. It happens more than I ever would have thought. These itchy sand fleas/flies are the worst. I was covered in them last year from a trip to jamaica and they lasted for weeks on me too. I highly recommend a cream with menthol to soothe that torturous itch.Happy travels,

    • Dina
      7 May 2010 at 1:22 am #

      Hi Debbie, thank you to confirm that itch from sandflies/fleas can last for weeks! My husband’s itch was gone very quickly, so it sounded a little bit insane when I tried to tell him that mine was still itchy weeks after that. I can imagine a cream with menthol will feel good on itching skin, thanks for the idea, will grab one I think for next time :) Happy travels to you too!

  5. Ashley
    6 May 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    I keep hydrocortisone cream around, too. Works great for me.

    The sand flies sound horrible! I’ve been lucky enough to be almost free of bug biting incidents while traveling :) Did step on an ant hill in Costa Rica, but thankfully I noticed rather quickly, so only had a couple bites.
    .-= Ashley´s last blog ..Fortified City Walls – Don’t You Just Love Them? =-.

    • Dina
      7 May 2010 at 1:29 am #

      I hate ant hills! When I was small, I stepped on a nest of red big fire ants. When I realized it, many ants were already walking around a half of my lower legs! I don’t remember much of the itchiness, but I remember the stings were fire hot! Until now, ant nests always give me this cringing feeling and cause my hair to raise up.
      2 people recommended hydrocortisone, seems like it’s the way to go.

  6. Eli
    6 May 2010 at 10:41 pm #

    Holy crap, I hate bedbugs! I’ve never had a run in with sand flies, but let me tell you, I ad a HUGE bedbug problem in Brooklyn one summer, it was so frustrating, I had to relocate and abandon almost all of my belongings.
    .-= Eli´s last blog ..Travel Alert For Thailand =-.

    • Ryan
      6 May 2010 at 10:59 pm #

      We had a problem with bedbugs once, in a little room we rented for a couple of months in Bandung, Indonesia. They weren’t too bad but most mornings I’d find a new bite on one of my feet. Dina didn’t suffer too much, because my feet made the most tempting target sticking out from under the blankets while hers were inside.

    • Dina
      7 May 2010 at 1:36 am #

      Which bed bugs, Ryan? I didn’t notice any :D

      Eli, wow, that must have been horrible, so you needed to discard some of your belongings! Imagining that makes my skin and nose itchy..

  7. Jennifer Barry
    7 May 2010 at 10:42 am #

    Living in Texas I can definitely relate to the fire ants! I rarely walk barefoot outside because of them. The worst itching I ever had was from a chigger. Apparently I’m allergic to them and so I can get a welt the diameter of an orange. My favorite thing to use for itching is Benadryl gel, that actually is a topical antihistamine.

    • Dina
      8 May 2010 at 1:10 am #

      Fire ants make me itchy just by looking at them now, especially the nest…
      Never heard about chigger before, then I checked it out in Wiki, quite wild! An orange diameter bump, that must be awful! I guess you always carry your Benadryl gel in your trip :)

      • Jennifer Barry
        8 May 2010 at 1:38 am #

        Yeah Dina, chiggers are kind of gross. I hope you don’t run into any on your travels but they are in a lot of places. Of course the biting insects find me much more tasty than my husband!
        .-= Jennifer Barry´s last blog ..Panama: Gateway to the World, Part 2 =-.

        • Dina
          9 May 2010 at 8:36 pm #

          We are the tasty kind for those bugs :) Yeah, I love traveling experience, but I don’t mind missing out the chigger-related ones!

  8. Earl
    7 May 2010 at 10:52 am #

    I feel your pain! During a trip to Thailand last year I fell asleep in a hammock on the beach and woke up covered in sand fly bites. Luckily, I once found a soothing cream in India made by a company called “Himalaya” which produces a line of natural products. And this cream has always worked for me in relieving any insect bite itching and as a result I always carry a bottle with me when I’m backpacking. And having to stock up on this cream is also my excuse for having to visit India so often!

    Although I probably get bitten by more insects and especially bed bugs over there than anywhere else…
    .-= Earl´s last blog ..Valladolid, Samula and Mother’s Day Songs =-.

    • Dina
      8 May 2010 at 1:17 am #

      Earl, that’s awful! Falling a sleep in beautiful beach is really nice, but sometimes we have to pay the price! I hope at least it didn’t itch for many weeks like mine :) Thanks for the Himalaya soothing cream tips, something to try when I’m in India (and seems like from your story, I will have a lot of opportunity to “test” the cream!)

  9. Suzy
    7 May 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    I’ve been there. For some reason mosquitoes love me. When I lived in Sicily, I shared a room and I was the only one that got attacked each night. My legs serious looked like I had been to battle. Huge red welts dotted my white as snow skin. It was awful. Good tips though. Dove soap is the best for sensitive skin.
    .-= Suzy´s last blog ..Travel Book Review: Getting Lost Around the World with The Lost Girls =-.

    • Dina
      8 May 2010 at 1:45 am #

      Hi Suzy! I’m wondering what makes these insects to like one person more than others! Mosquitoes love you, sand flies love me, and bed bugs love my husband.
      Do you like using dove too? I love trying different soaps especially ones with smells that I like. Unfortunately that won’t last long. If I can finish one mysterious bar without switching to dove, that will be great already!

  10. Mary R
    7 May 2010 at 6:19 pm #

    I always get attacked the pests too while my companion is completely untouched. Good recommendations for fighting them!

    I’ve had my share of bed bugs too!
    .-= Mary R´s last blog ..Hello, My Name is Mary… =-.

    • Dina
      8 May 2010 at 2:15 am #

      Hi Mary, I wonder what makes us more delicious than other people!

  11. Matt
    13 May 2010 at 11:41 pm #

    Excellent post, Dina. What a stunning sunset. It must have been warm while you were there, because I certainly wouldn’t have swam in Lake Taupo a couple weeks ago – especially at sunset!

    The bloody sandflies have a habit of ruining the many picturesque settings in New Zealand! I’m shocked you put up with the biting for as long as you did! I spent the summer in Franz Josef and it was essentially impossible to be outdoors in the bush most times.

    Don’t get me started on bed bugs … this was my only bad experience in Turkey!
    .-= Matt´s last blog ..Cruising the Bay of Islands on The Rock =-.

    • Dina
      14 May 2010 at 1:38 pm #

      Hey Matt, the water was cool in February, but it was still bearable. At least for Ryan. The air was quite warm that day – we were lucky, it was not always warm when we were there.
      Previously I had countless encounters with mosquitoes, but somehow this was my first experience with sand flies. I thought my sacrifice was going to be only that moment. I might covered up first if I knew it would take many weeks for the itch to be gone! Those little monsters….

      Sounds like you have a nasty experience with bed bugs?

  12. Akila
    14 May 2010 at 11:40 am #

    The sandflies in New Zealand were awful! The worst were at Milford Sound in the South Island. We sprayed ourselves with so much DEET for that entire month. I can’t believe you stuck it out in the sand because the flies are truly awful!

    • Dina
      14 May 2010 at 1:43 pm #

      Hi Akila,
      Glad that you and Matt confirmed that NZ’s sandflies are mean, those little monsters! Regardless of my countless experiences getting bitten by mosquitoes, that was the first time I met with nasty hungry sandflies. If I’d known the itch wouldn’t be gone for many weeks, I would’ve covered up first!
      I might go back to NZ sometimes soon, this time I need to remember to carry DEET with us!

  13. Rani
    11 August 2010 at 11:26 am #

    I have super sensitive skin as well, I keep getting some red itchy spot without knowing where it comes. I went to dermatologist in Japan several times and the doctor simply said “don’t worry, it just because the weather or seasonal changes” (how can???, you know in our country there is almost no such seasonal changes and I experienced it all my life), then he recommended me to not using any soap while bathing, and immediately smeared lotion on my skin after take a bath.
    Dermatologist in Bandung recommended me using Oilum bar soap (you should try it when you go back to Indonesia), he warned me not to use soft soap, either.

    I’d like to try Dove bar soap as shown in your photo, I’ve tried Dove before but it’s not so meant, perhaps I used different type.

    • Dina
      24 August 2010 at 11:38 am #

      Halo Ran, thanks for making it here :)
      Seasonal change, eh? Those Japs like to tell us to be careful with the change in weather :) haha, did you tell him you had gotten it even in Indonesia?
      I feel the dry air likes to mess with my hand. It’s just more easily irritated.

      How is it going with not using soap? I don’t think I can’t do without. Dove has a high percentage of moisturizer, love to use it in drier locations, but can get too sticky in Indonesia. Try the original one (the blue one), or if it’s not good enough, the light blue one for sensitive skin. The more fun scented ones are sometimes not good for my skin either.

      I will try Oilum if I can find it.

  14. Ian
    12 October 2010 at 1:04 pm #

    Thanks for the treatment advice.
    Strangely,exotic lands aren’t necessarily the worst for bugs. I traveled in the Philippines and, despite my fears, rarely saw an insect. During several trips to Florida I was plagued by mosquitoes and ants.
    Good to know there is some defense.
    Ian´s last post…Review of Tokyo Prince Hotel

    • Dina
      18 October 2010 at 9:32 am #

      Haha, wow! I thought Philippines will have some insects!
      Thanks to remind me about the bugs in Florida, I guess insect repellent and itch relieving agent can’t be left behind in a trip… just in case!

  15. Kerry-ann
    16 November 2010 at 4:27 pm #

    This is a late reply I know but just come across this post. NZ has its fair share of pesky sandflies and until anyone has experience them they don’t know what they are talking about!! I have tried many different lotins – hydrocortisone works best, but also found by taking antihistimine tablets the inflammation was reduced. What works best though for me is a scorchingly hot shower (okay not that hot that I toast myself but hotter than a normal hot shower). I find that it intensifies the itch but then gives relief for upto eight hours. I guess the best policy is to avoid them completely – but not practical!!!

    • Dina
      18 January 2011 at 1:54 am #

      Haha, true that, you have to experience it yourself, it was unbelievable (never thought it could be that itchy, before!)Taking antihistamine, eh, I haven’t thought of that, but will try it next time I have an extreme itch problem. I did the “scorchingly” hot shower too, when I could. As hot as I could do. I didn’t feel it was intensified though. It gave the temporary relieve, even though I think it was not any close to 8 hours for me. Maybe not scorching enough…
      The best instant relieve for me is to scratch it like a mad man! Until it feel burns. At that point, I don’t feel the itch anymore. But then when my skin is ruined!!!
      Yeah, avoiding is not practical :D
      (and sorry for the long reply, didn’t realize there’s a new message)

  16. john nielson
    16 January 2011 at 7:01 pm #

    hi dina,
    i know exactly where you are coming from, ive been to N.Z many times , i remember hiring a car in nelson to do the big south island tour i got attacked on the glaciers, first day of the trip, my feet and socks got wet so i kicked them off , well the little buggers got my feet(in the car). i scratched all the way to duneden , i was enroute to milford but i called it off. i got home (aus)& scratched for a month .but on a subsequent trip , i got bitten again.a friendlychemist came to the rescue he sold me a local product called “scratchy & itchy” its magic instant relief ive always got some on hand, you dont seem to be able to get it here in aus . by the way aussie sand flies dont bother me, but they torture my wife, that is till i got the , S & I, hope this helps,

    • Dina
      18 January 2011 at 1:59 am #

      Hi John, that sounds awful, scratching your way from the glaciers to Dunedin. It must be really bad that you had to skip Milford. Did you get the chance to go to Milford after wards? Perhaps in different trip? That place is currently my #1 favourite place on earth!
      Scratchy & Itchy, eh, I haven’t heard of that stuff. Definitely if I ever spot it, I will get some. I want a magic instant relief.

  17. Samantha Dermot
    24 February 2011 at 7:27 pm #

    Looks like you just find something more interesting than to feel pissed off with those insects huh? You’ve got a nice picture! I can clearly see the insect! I wonder what you did with that insect afterwards! LOL
    Samantha Dermot´s last post…Pros And Cons Of Mouth Guards

  18. kathy
    17 September 2011 at 12:58 am #

    Hello Everyone! I am glad to see from your posts the itching from fly bites can last so long because I was starting to get worried! About six weeks ago in rural Ohio I was bitten by flies (or maybe mosquitos?) and ended up with over 30 very itchy welts. They oozed and itched and made me crazy!! (No one else around me was affected, weirdly enough.) Since then some spots have scabbed over and have left a reddish scar, some are scabby and not itchy, BUT a few seem to have revived themselves and are really itchy again!! How can that be?? Is it okay for healing to take that long?? What should I do? Any suggestions are super welcome! Thanks!

  19. Pauline
    23 January 2012 at 8:31 am #

    There are a lot flies and biting insects at the seashore especially sunset. It is normal because the insect will go home and tired of looking food.

  20. Dave E Wilkes
    25 March 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    For me, even though sand flies are terrible and keep me scratching and scratching, much worse are bed bugs.
    I just couldn’t bear the thought of trying to get to sleep, just knowing that they will be crawling all over me while I am sleeping.
    I’ve never been to New Zealand.
    You paint such a wonderful picture of what it is like there that I would gladly brave the sand flies to be there.
    Dave E Wilkes´s last post…3 Things You Need to Know Before Using a Home Remedy For Bed Bugs

  21. 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.

  22. 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!


  1. Weekend Update: 5/8/10 - 8 May 2010

    […] a funny ongoing discussion at VagabondQuest about the hazards of sleeping abroad: bedbugs, sandflies, and other bitey […]

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