The Kissing Bug and Chagas Disease

  • Published
  • By Griffin Swartzell
  • Space Observer staff writer

The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment reports that a species of triatomine bug, known more commonly as kissing bugs, has been confirmed in Colorado. These bugs, which feed on the blood of mammals, including humans, are known to spread Chagas disease. The incidence of the disease is low in the U.S. Its symptoms range from none at all to, rarely, life-threatening and is more likely to develop serious symptoms in children.

“Nobody wants to get a disease,” said Tech Sgt. Terrence Buckner, 21st Medical Group Public Health non-commissioned officer in charge of force health management. “It’s a complication you don’t need.”

Chagas disease comes from a single-celled parasite that lives in the digestive tract of many species of kissing bugs. Typically, kissing bugs defecate on or around the animal or person they’re feeding on, and the parasite infects its host when kissing bug feces is rubbed into the bite wound or a mucous membrane, such as the eye or mouth.

"There are two major reasons we don't see more cases of locally-transmitted Chagas disease in the United States," said Kevin Harkins, an entomologist with the Army Public Health Center. "First, our local kissing bugs aren't great disease vectors, and second, most people live in tightly constructed housing that won't let in a tiny mosquito, much less a large insect like a kissing bug."

The kissing bug species in the U.S. are less likely to spread Chagas, as they tend to defecate once they’ve crawled off of their prey. Chagas is more commonly spread in Mexico and Central and South America, where local kissing bug species defecate closer to where they eat. They can live indoors in cracks and holes, but widespread use of plastered walls and sealed entryways make that a concern mainly in substandard housing in the U.S. Kissing bugs can be kept out of the home by sealing cracks in windows, walls and roofs, using screen doors and windows, and keeping the home and outdoor pet resting areas clean.

Kissing bugs typically live in areas where rodents also nest, often beneath porches, in outdoor dog kennels, and in rock, wood or brush piles. According to Buckner, people are most likely to encounter a kissing bug while camping.

"Most people will never encounter a kissing bug, but we always recommend sleeping under a bed net if you plan to sleep outside or in rough structures like cabins and camping shelters in these states," said Harkins.

People infected with Chagas may or may not experience fever or swelling at the infection site, but most don’t experience any symptoms. Untreated, the parasite responsible for Chagas may live in the host’s body for decades, with 20 to 30% of infected persons experiencing digestive or cardiac issues.

Buckner said that locals are much more likely to encounter ticks, mosquitos and other biting insects.

“Be aware of all insects during the summer season,” said Buckner.

If you suspect you have Chagas disease, please consult your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.