They look like fleas

An occupational hazard of homelessness

My first go-round with body lice occurred in September 2019.  I had another one in September 2022.

The full-grown adults look like fleas; they’re about 1/8 inch long.  As will be seen, getting them is, as it were, an occupational hazard of homelessness.

They do not spend any considerable amounts of time on one’s body; they hang out, instead on one’s clothes.  According to the Wikipedia article, DNA analysis indicates they appeared about 107,000 years ago, and from this we can estimate at what time human beings first began wearing clothes.

The first time I got them, I spent the night at a certain hotel.  As is my custom at any hotel, I sat for several hours that night at the desk, using the wi-fi on my tablet, sitting in, as it happened that night, this lightly-upholstered chair.  During that time, my legs began itching horribly.  I was uncomfortable, but didn’t give it any particular thought.

Several days later, different signs of these critters began to appear, and I eventually saw full-grown adults.  On my clothes, never on my person; but that they did visit my body was evident from the bothersome itching and the rash that developed, particularly around my midriff and under my armpits.  This went on for six to eight weeks.

I concluded that some previous occupant of that hotel room had had quite a serious infestation; they’d got into the upholstery of that chair; and having had, for several days, nobody to feed on; that night, they frolicked in feeding on me.

And, of course, infested my trousers.

It became an ordeal.  At first, I thought I had scabies; I researched that, but the facts did not fit.  I researched other kinds of flies that infest human beings — for these were flies; although body lice don’t normally have wings, these did — and read about the unhappiness involved in those infestations.  When I ran out of patience, I collected some specimens in a tiny, screw-topped jar, and took that with me to the walk-in clinic.  The doctor was able to identify them, and prescribe treatment.

Aside from the itch, the first sign of them was most likely these little brown or black nits that appeared in my underwear.  Of course, I had occasion to see them every time I sat down in the bathroom.  With these insects, apparently there is no larval or pupal stage; they hatch as nymphs, basically tiny adults, and then grow and grow and grow.

As things progressed, I might pick off a dozen or more, at various stages of growth, on any one trip to the bathroom.  In the shower room in the afternoon, I would normally change t-shirt and socks, but turn my trousers inside out and pick off all I could find in them.  They weren’t likely to live too long on the concrete shower-room floor; or, just as likely, they’d get swept up with the dust.  Once I got into the shower stall itself, I’d carefully inspect my underwear.  (No “free ballin’” was allowed in the shower room.)

They start off real small, so small one might not even see them or notice them.  In the latest go-round, one time in the bathroom, I tired of picking off the little specks, and was going to let one in particular go — and then it moved.


The treatment consists of applying a permethrin cream (Permethrin is a general insecticide, extracted from chrysanthemums.) from head to toe, and washing it off in the shower or bath twelve hours later.  At the same time, one must have a complete change of clothes — and bedding — and launder the old clothes and bedding.  One treatment usually works.  If it doesn’t, one can treat again a couple weeks later.

The standard prescription for the cream includes enough for two applications.

The first time I did this, in 2019, at the shelter where I was, one was mandated to shower every day, and one had opportunity to get all clean clothes every day.  I normally changed my t-shirt and socks every day, but did not change my trousers very often.  There wasn’t much point in changing my bedding:  (1) the bed sheets there were already changed and laundered daily; the blankets, once a week; and (2) one might be assigned a different bunk every night.

The doctor had advised me to tell the shelter staff about my problem, so as to stem any possible spread.  But on the one hand, with that situation as to the bunks, there wasn’t likely to be any spread; and on the other hand, I didn’t want to risk becoming a pariah.

Where I was in 2022, changes of clothes, and laundry, were nowhere near so convenient.

Of course, for the homeless person who’s literally on the street, bathing and clean clothes are hardly available at all.

Where do they come from?

The CDC page indicates anyone can get this who fails to shower or bathe at least once a week, and/or doesn’t change clothes very often.  By both tokens, then, the homeless are especially prone.

I’ve already told how I got them in 2019.  How I got them in 2022 is a bit of a mystery.  To get them from another person requires sustained body contact, for example in sex.  In 2022, I had had no such exposure.  I did get a new neighbor, in the first bunk south of mine, at about the same time the new infestation appeared; on two occasions about a week apart, they stripped his bunk and sprayed the area with bug spray, but didn’t tell anyone anything about it.  So on the one hand, he may have brought them with him; or, they may have come from the previous occupant, who was not at all a well-kept person.  But the CDC page does not give any indication that they’ll crawl or fly as much as ten feet, so as to get from one place to another — or from his bunk to mine.

But they can’t come from spontaneous generation either.

The conclusion I came to is that, in general, these critters are just “out there,” and anyone can get an infestation if the conditions are right.  By comparison to things I’ve said about other creatures before:

“There are all kinds of seeds in the ground everywhere.  Only some will sprout and grow and thrive in some places, and others in others.  It depends on the “fit” between the needs of the seed and potential plant, on the one hand, and the available warmth, light and moisture in that particular place at that particular time.

“So on the one hand, I look at weeds in the sidewalk and ask, “Why did this one grow here but not there, and that one grow there but not here?”  And then a cool, rainy weekend comes and the neighboring field explodes with sprouts of some kind of plant, all the same kind, that I’ve never seen in that place before.”

Related:  A weed tree | The Homeless Blogger

The CDC page says they’ll die if they have no warm-blooded creature to feed off of; in five to seven days.

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