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A bite from a blood-sucking kissing bug increases your risk of developing Chagas disease, a parasitic infection that can be deadly in some cases. The kissing bug, formally called the triatomine bug, visits its unwitting victims at night and spreads infection by leaving feces behind. Chagas disease is most dangerous if it becomes a chronic condition.
About the Triatomine Bug
An adult triatomine bug is approximately an inch long and has three pairs of legs, a pair of antennae and a long, sharp projection called a proboscis that extends from its head. Its lower body is rounded and gradually tapers toward the head. The bug uses the sharp point of the proboscis to prick the skin of its victim. Although the bug has wings, it uses them to glide, rather than fly, to its victims. Heat sensors in the triatomine bug’s antennae help it find people and other mammals to satisfy its blood thirst. The bug lives in the lower two-thirds of the United States, as well as in Mexico and South and Central America.
You can develop Chagas disease if you are bitten by a triatomine bug that carries the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi. The bug picks up the parasite if it bites an infected person or animal before it bites you. As the bug sucks your blood, it defecates on your skin. If the bug’s feces don’t contain the parasite, you won’t get sick. Infection can occur if contaminated feces enter the bite or if you touch the feces and then touch your eyes, mouth or nose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that the infection also can pass from mother to baby during birth, or you might become infected through a blood transfusion or organ transplant, or by eating uncooked food if it contains infected feces from the triatomine bug.
Symptoms of Chagas disease can be mild and include swelling around the bite, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, rash, swollen glands, appetite loss, rash and liver or spleen enlargement. Your doctor might suspect you have Chagas disease if you develop Romana's sign, a swelling of the eyelid. Some people will notice no symptoms during the first, or acute, stage. Years after the acute phase, some people develop the chronic phase. Chronic Chagas disease can cause a variety of heart-related problems, including an enlarged heart, irregular heartbeat, congestive heart failure and even cardiac arrest. The disease also can cause the esophagus and colon to enlarge, leading to difficulty swallowing and abdominal pain.
Treatment and Prevention
Doctors use antiparasitic medication to treat Chagas disease. The medication is most helpful if it’s used when you experience acute symptoms. Treatment of the chronic form of the disease involves treating the various symptoms, such as using appropriate medication to treat heart disease. Although it’s impossible to completely avoid a bite from a triatomine bug, you can reduce your risk if you seal holes around your doors and windows, use mosquito netting around your bed if you live in a high risk area, spray your home with pesticides and promptly repair holes in your screens.