Bugs can be annoying, but most of them are pretty harmless, right?
You may have heard of the seemingly innocent kissing bug, but probably haven’t heard about how harmful they can really be!
These beetle-like bugs are typically about the size of a penny and often have distinct red or yellow stripes on their abdomen. They’re best known for their ability to spread Chagas disease. The Center For Disease Control And Prevention has even issued a press release on their subject.
Also called Triatomine bugs, kissing bugs are found in the southern United States, Mexico, Central America, and South America. The can transition between living indoor and outdoors, so they can be quite hard to avoid. So far, 11 different species of kissing bugs have been found in the United States (1).
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Like mosquitoes, kissing bugs feed on the blood of their prey, which can include household pets. However, they tend to be active at night, so walking your dog after the sun has set may give the bugs an opportunity to hitch a ride into your home.
The Ins And Outs of Chagas
Kissing bugs can transmit Chagas disease if the parasites that live in their dung find their way into a person’s bite wound or mucous membranes. However, not all kissing bugs carry the parasite and most bites do not create the conditions necessary for infection.
Kissing bugs can also cause an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals. This reaction can easily be mistaken for an infection, but it’s best to seek medical advice immediately if you’ve come into contact with one of these bugs.
The World Health Organization states that “6 million to 7 million people worldwide, mostly in Latin America, are estimated to be infected with Trypansosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease.” (2).
Chagas damages the hearts of a third of all infected patients, causing swollen, weakened heart muscles and an irregular heart rhythm (3). Over time, it can be the cause of life-threatening heart disease, killing roughly 12,000 people worldwide each year (4). Chagas can also be transmitted through donated blood and organs and it can affect the digestive and nervous systems. If not treated, the disease can last for decades, often resulting in death.
Symptoms typically don’t appear until a week or two after the initial bite and can last for up to two months. It’s also possible to be infected with Chagas and not exhibit any symptoms.
Symptoms include, but are not limited to:
- Swelling around the infected bite
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Muscle pain
- Difficulty breathing
Chagas can be treated if the infection is promptly diagnosed. That’s why it’s essential to report any Chaga-like symptoms to your doctor if you live in the Southern USA or if you’ve recently traveled to Central or South America. Pregnant women and their newborns should also be tested for Chagas, which can easily be cured in infants.
Although you should keep an eye out for these bugs and contact your local exterminator if you find some in your home, experts at the CDC insist that they aren’t a cause for wide-spread panic. In fact, only 23 cases of US-acquired (meaning the disease infected its host on US soil) have been identified since 1955.
“We know that people are acquiring this infection in the United States. But it’s not common,” says Susan Montgomery, epidemiology team lead of the Parasitic Diseases Branch at the CDC. “Can we interpret that to say we know a lot about this? No, we don’t know much. We really need more studies to understand what the risk is”.
For now, keeping your home clean and maintained, fixing broken screen on window and doors and letting your pets sleep inside are easy ways to avoid getting infected. It’s also important to wear long, protective clothing if you got exploring where kissing bugs may reside, like in forests, fields, and abandoned homes.
To find out more, check out Texas A&M University’s Frequently Asked Questions.