In the news recently have been a number of stories about “kissing bugs” and the threat of them transmitting Chagas Disease. The stories have also stated that these insects (actually known as triatomine, but also known as assassin bugs or conenoses) have “invaded” the U.S.
This gives the impression that these insects have not already been here and that this is a new threat never faced before.
While the story of invading insects causing disease makes for great headlines, it’s actually very misleading. The truth is that assassin/kissing bugs have been in the U.S. for a long time and Chagas Disease is nothing new – but it is rare.
Here are the facts.
What is a Kissing Bug?
A kissing bug, or assassin bug, is a blood-feeding insect. They are nocturnal, preferring to feed at night. They got their name from the perceived tendency to “kiss” their hosts during the night in order to drink their blood. To accomplish the blood-feed the kissing bug has long, beak-like mouthparts that pierce the skin and allow for the blood to flow. They have a tendency to find spots near their victim’s face.
Kissing bugs are dark colored and oval shaped. They grow to 1/2 to 1 inch in length. The beak they use for feeding is very prominent and noticeable if you see one.
In the wild kissing bugs like to find homes in abandoned rodent nests. In some areas they like to hide in outlying structures like chicken coops and stables. They do get inside human dwellings because they want to find warm-blooded creatures to feed on and humans make a nice treat. They are most common in areas where homes have thatched roofs or that use palm leaves or adobe to construct the home.
The kissing bug is most common in warmer climates and found in South or Central America or Mexico. However, they are not uncommon in the warmer areas of the United States. In fact, they are routinely found in 28 states, but mostly in the south.
What is Chagas Disease?
Chagas Disease is an illness caused by a parasite known as Trypanosoma cruzi. It is primarily spread by the kissing bug and other members of the Triatominae family of insects. The symptoms of Chagas Disease change over the course of the illness and when the infection first happens, the symptoms are often unnoticed.
The insects become infected when they bite and feed upon animals or people that have the parasite. When kissing bugs feed, they defecate near the feeding area and the parasite can be transmitted to the host that way.
In the early stages Chagas Disease presents as a swollen area on or around the bite area. There is also an accompanying fever and swollen lymph nodes. The problem with the illnesses is that is often leads to chronic health problems that can plague those infected 10 to 30 years later. The chronic issues can lead to potentially life-threatening problems such as enlarging the ventricles of the heart that can then lead to heart failure.
What Can Be Done?
The best thing that you can do is avoid kissing bugs. Although Chagas Disease is rare and the chance of catching it in the United States is very low, it’s best to use preventive methods to eliminate the risk entirely.
These methods include:
- Sealing up cracks and crevices that kissing bugs can use to gain access
- Putting screens on windows and doors and making sure they are not torn
- Getting rid of debris, wood piles, rock piles and other things the bugs can use for nesting
- Change out the porch lights from white bulbs that attract nocturnal insects to yellow ones
- Make sure that the pet areas you have outdoors are kept clean
- Keep your grass mowed and vegetation away from your home.
It’s Important to Know
In the United States the species of kissing bug prefer to live in the wild and rarely end up indoors. The species, most common in the U.S. also has a time delay between feeding and defecation, which means that you can usually clean off the feces after being bitten and reduce the risk of infection.
Thus, although the headlines make for great press and get lots of attention, the risks for Chagas Disease from kissing bugs in the U.S. are very low. They are not uncommon, not invading, and some simple precautions can virtually eliminate your risk.
If you have concerns about kissing bugs, call in the professionals and have them eliminate the insects from your property.
If you would like more information, download and view this PDF for information about kissing bugs and Chagas Disease.