Kissing Bugs and Chagas Disease

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Recently, my good friend Jack Spirko of the Survival Podcast asked me to produce a special report on Kissing Bugs. No, not kissing bugs, as in how to kiss bugs; I mean THE kissing bug, an invasive species from south of the border that is now found as far north as Pennsylvania and Illinois.

The insect in question is Triatoma sanguisuga. It’s called the kissing bug because it tends to bite human and animal victims around the mouth, although sometimes it might target the eyes or other mucous membranes.

It’s bad enough to have to deal with the redness, itching, and swelling that goes along with insect bites, but there’s more: When the kissing bug sucks your blood, it defecates (poops) on your skin. irritated victims tend to rub the poop into the bite wound while scratching the itchy areas. In kids, a swollen eyelid on one side, also called “Romana’s sign”, is a possible sign of infection.

Even worse, In the excrement lives a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi that lodges itself in heart, intestine, and elsewhere and causes something called Chagas disease. Most people only experience minor symptoms. But a percentage of victims may develop:

  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Enlargement of the liver or spleen
  • An increased chance of having a stroke
  • An enlarged heart
  • Irregular heartbeats that can be fatal

Chagas disease is not transmitted from person-to-person or through casual contact with infected people or animals. It can be spread, however, by infected blood products or from mother to baby during pregnancy. Rarely, an extreme allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis can occur.

You can avoid Chagas Disease by identifying and eliminating the bug that carries it. Adult kissing bugs range from about 3/4 to 1 ¼ inches in length. Most (but not all) species have a very characteristic band around the edge of the body that is striped with orange or red markings. Their mouthparts appear as a large black extension to the head.

The CDC has a set of recommendation to discourage Kissing Bugs:

  • Locate outdoor lights away from dwellings such as homes, dog kennels and chicken coops
  • Turn off lights when not in use
  • Remove rock, wood, and trash piles from near the home
  • Clear out nests of birds and animals
  • Seal cracks or gaps around windows, air conditioners, wall, roofs, doors, and crawl spaces
  • Close Chimney flues when not in use
  • Allow pet to sleep indoors if possible

Bottom line: The Kissing bug exists and so does Chagas Disease, but most people don’t know they have it. Although 300,000 people are thought to have brought the disease in from latin America, few cases seem to have originated in the U.S.. The bug is here, however, and you should know about it and how to treat it.

Antiparasitic treatment is most effective early in the course of infection. In the United States, the treatment with the least side effects is Benznidazole. It is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even for use in children 2–12 years of age and is commercially available. You may get better on your own after a few weeks, but without the treatment, the infection stays in your body.

A personal experience with the kissing bug is unlikely to be in your future, but If you suspect you have Chagas disease, contact your health care provider immediately.

Joe Alton MD

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