Kissing Bugs, Parasites and Their Disease

Parasite Spread by Nighttime ‘Kissing Bug’ – Chagas Disease…

Since our FB post and “In the News” post to this site about ‘kissing’ bugs that bite people’s faces in the dark of night as they sleep.. spreading a horrid parasitic disease… the phone, email and FB questions have been going crazy!  One person wrote… “OMG, I saw one of these bugs on my porch and then one in my garage.  Never paid much attention before, but after seeing your post and a picture of this bug… it freaks me out.  I’m not a big pesticide person.. but this bug may be a game changer!”  Another comment: “You’ve got to be kidding.. those bugs are all over the place here!  Now, how am I going to sleep?”

Before you freak out, let’s get the facts on this creepy bug!  The University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine and Public Health website has a great description of the bug: “Kissing bugs are wingless insects that are about 0.75 in. (1.9 cm) long. Kissing bugs are dark brown or black with red or orange spots along the edge of their bodies. They are also called assassin bugs or cone-nosed bugs. Like mosquitoes, kissing bugs feed on blood from animals or people. Kissing bugs have that name because their bites are often found around the mouth. They usually hide during the day and are active at night when they feed. They can go for weeks without feeding.”

That said, there are a couple issues with these nighttime darlings that are problematic: #1 Their bites itch like crazy and can become infected, #2 Some carry a parasite that causes Chagas disease, and #3 They are not that easy to get rid of.

Let’s address each issue:

#1 – When they bite, kissing bugs can cause patches of bites, often around the mouth (hence ‘kissing’ bug). The bites are usually painless, but they may swell and look like hives. Itching from the bites may last a week. It’s important not to scratch the bites, because according to the Mayo Clinic’s Patient Healthcare and Information website: “Scratching or rubbing the bite site helps the parasites enter your body. Once in your body, the parasites multiply and spread.

#2 – The possibility of contracted Chagas disease is probably the most feared aspect of a bite.  First of all, not all kissing bugs carry the parasite that causes this disease.  Chagas (CHAH-gus) disease is an inflammatory, infectious disease caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is found in the feces of the kissing bug. Infected bugs defecate after feeding, leaving behind T. cruzi parasites on the skin. The parasites can then enter your body through your eyes, mouth, a cut or scratch, or the wound from the bug’s bite. (We know… not pleasant). It is a disease primarily found in South America, Central America and Mexico, the primary home of the kissing bug. Cases of Chagas disease have been diagnosed in the southern United States, as well. It can infect anyone and left untreated, can cause serious heart and digestive problems.

The two phases of Chagas disease are well explained by the Mayo Clinic on their website for Patient Healthcare and Information, where they state, “Chagas disease can cause a sudden, brief illness (acute), or it may be a long-lasting (chronic) condition. Symptoms range from mild to severe, although many people don’t experience symptoms until the chronic stage.”

Acute phase

The acute phase of Chagas disease, which lasts for weeks or months, is often symptom-free. When signs and symptoms do occur, they are usually mild and may include:

  • Swelling at the infection site
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Rash
  • Body aches
  • Eyelid swelling
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea, diarrhea or vomiting
  • Swollen glands
  • Enlargement of your liver or spleen

Signs and symptoms that develop during the acute phase usually go away on their own. If left untreated, the infection persists and, in some cases, advances to the chronic phase.

Chronic phase

Signs and symptoms of the chronic phase of Chagas disease may occur 10 to 20 years after initial infection, or they may never occur. In severe cases, however, Chagas disease signs and symptoms may include:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Sudden cardiac arrest
  • Difficulty swallowing due to enlarged esophagus
  • Abdominal pain or constipation due to enlarged colon

Treatment for Chagas Disease

As stated on the World Health Organization’s website: “Treatment is urgently indicated for anyone during the acute phase and for those in whom the infection has been reactivated (immunosuppression). In these situations, treatment is almost 100% effective, and the disease can be completely cured.”  ‘Treatment’ involves the use of prescription medications.  The longer a person is infected, the less effective ‘treatment’ becomes.  The World Health Organization further states. “Adults, especially those with the indeterminate form of the disease, should be offered treatment, but its potential benefits in preventing or delaying the development of Chagas disease should be weighed against the long duration and frequent adverse events. During the late chronic phase, when cardiac or digestive manifestations may occur, additional lifelong medical treatment and surgery are usually indicated.”

What to do if you feel as though you may have been bitten by one of these darlings:

  • Wash the bites with soap to help decrease the chance of infection.
  • Try calamine lotion or an anti-itch cream to calm the itching. You can also hold an oatmeal pack (wrap 1 cup (0.2 L) of oatmeal in a cotton wash cloth, and boil it for a few minutes until it is soft) – holding on the itchy area for 15 minutes at a time.
  • Intermittent application of ice packs may also relieve any swelling.
  • See a medical professional if you think the bite may be infected. Or as the Mayo Clinic suggests, “See your doctor if you live in or have traveled to an area at risk of Chagas disease and you have signs and symptoms of the condition, such as swelling at the infection site, fever, fatigue, body aches, rash and nausea.”

#3 Kissing bugs can be hard to get rid of. These bugs can hide in cracks and crevices in your mattress, bed frame, and box spring. They can also spread into cracks and crevices in rooms, where they lay their eggs. Even if you’re not a big fan of pesticides, considering the alternative consequences, it is best to call a professional insect control company for treatment choices.

Prevention is almost always the first course of action.  Taking these steps would best to prevent these bugs from getting into your house:

  • Seal gaps around windows and doors. Fill in any holes or cracks in walls or screens that could let kissing bugs into your house.
  • Let your pets sleep inside, especially at night. Keep pets from sleeping in a bedroom. Keep clean areas where your pet sleeps.
  • Clean up any piles of wood or rocks that are up against your house.

It’s important to note these bugs are broadening their territories  (spreading) across the US and estimates of human cases of Chagas disease in the US range from 300,000 to over 1 million, with particular concern for those living in the US/Mexico border regions. In addition to documented cases in immigrants who were infected in central and South America, there are increasing reports of human cases of Chagas disease acquired in the United States.

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