Kissing bugs may sound cuddly and cute, but these creepy-crawlies are anything but!
Known scientifically as triatomines, kissing bugs get their mild moniker from one of their favorite places to bite — your face.
Luckily, these little love bites don’t hurt, thanks to the anesthetic quality of the bugs’ saliva, which they inject into your skin when they bite. Kissing bugs generally come out to bite and feed on blood at night, while we sleep, with each feast lasting 20 to 30 minutes.
Kissing bugs can also carry Trypanosoma cruzi, a parasite they pick up when they feed on animals and people who have it. The parasite lives in the bugs’ urine and feces. If the contaminated feces finds its way inside your body, you’ll develop an infection called Chagas disease. (Handwashing FTW!)
Sometimes you can’t! In fact, most people don’t have any kind of skin reaction to the bite, and those who do may think it’s any ol’ bug bite. The biggest difference is that there are usually several bite marks clustered in a single spot.
Some people may experience a mild reaction, like itching, swelling, or redness. Others may have a more severe allergic reaction (more on that later).
People who have acquired Trypanosoma cruzi may have additional symptoms a week or two after the bite. A small, red, swollen area that feels hard may crop up — this is called a chagoma.
If the bug’s bite is near your eye or its feces accidentally gets into your eye (gross), you may develop Romaña’s sign, which is a very fancy term for distinctive eye swelling.
In rare cases, kissing bug bites can result in more severe symptoms.
As mentioned earlier, kissing bugs’ urine and feces are known to carry a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, which can cause Chagas disease.
For the bug to pass the disease to a human, the bug’s feces or urine has to enter through your eyes, nose, mouth, or any other opening in your skin — including the bite itself. Scratching or rubbing the bite increases the likelihood of transferring the feces or urine into your body.
Not everyone who’s bitten by a kissing bug will get Chagas disease. But if you do, the disease has two phases.
During the acute phase, you may not have any symptoms. As the parasites circulate in your blood, you may start to feel like you have a very mild case of the flu, complete with aches, pains, fever, swollen lymph nodes, or even a rash. To cure the illness, it’s crucial to receive treatment at this phase.
As the number of parasites in your blood decreases, your symptoms will improve. This is known as the chronic phase. While your overall health may seem a-OK, the parasite remains in your body. At this point, there’s no longer a way to cure the disease.
For many people, symptoms never pop back up, but for some, they do — even a decade or more later! The CDC estimates that 20 to 30 percent of people who have the disease may experience severe — even fatal — symptoms at some point years later.
These symptoms can include:
- abnormal heart rhythm
- a dilated, enlarged heart
Chagas disease is most commonly found in South America, Central America, and Mexico, where an estimated 8 million people have the disease.
Kissing bugs can be found in the southern United States, but despite Southern hospitality, these genteel bugs only rarely carry the Chagas-causing parasite.
The CDC estimates that about 300,000 people in the United States have Chagas disease, and most have picked up the disease while traveling.
Severe allergic reaction
For some people, a kissing bug bite may result in a severe acute allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Symptoms include sudden difficulty breathing, throat swelling, a fast heart rate, and dangerously low blood pressure.
If you begin experiencing an anaphylactic reaction, hightail it to the ER or call 911.
If your healthcare provider catches your Chagas disease early, they may prescribe an antiparasitic medication. Some common antiparasitic meds used to treat Chagas disease are:
- Nifurtimox: An investigational drug that hasn’t been approved by the FDA. Your doctor can get this med only from the CDC.
- Benznidazole: An FDA-approved drug for kids ages 2 through 12 that is available only from the manufacturer.
Chagas disease can be cured only in the acute phase, so you’ll want to see your healthcare provider right away if you think you may have contracted the disease.
Once the disease reaches the chronic phase, your doc may prescribe meds to help slow it down and avoid fatal complications, but they can’t cure the damage it has already caused.
Meds should be given to people in the chronic phase who are up to age 50 and don’t have advanced cardiomyopathy. For people over age 50, more individual factors may affect their treatment plan.
It’s time to visit your healthcare provider if:
- you’ve spotted kissing bugs in your home (pics below… you’ve been warned!)
- you live in Central or South America, Mexico, or the southern United States and find clustered bites on your face (or other areas of your body)
- you have symptoms of Chagas disease
Because kissing bugs are creatures of the night, they love to spend their daylight hours lounging in the likes of straw, mud, or adobe.
If you find yourself in kissing bug territory, be sure to:
- regularly apply bug spray
- place an insecticide-coated net around your bed
- use insecticides to kill bugs in your home and the surrounding area
If you live in the land of the kissing bug, you may also consider:
- getting rid of any debris within 20 feet of your house
- using bleach or insecticidal solution to clean surfaces
- repairing any holes in window screens
- using silicone-based caulk to patch up any cracks or crevices
- making sure Fido sleeps inside — he doesn’t want to get sick, either
If you see a kissing bug in your home:
- capture it in a container (be sure to wear gloves, and DON’T SQUISH OR TOUCH IT!)
- use a bleach solution to clean all surfaces
If all else fails, hire a professional to make like a Dalek and EXTERMINATE!
Kissing bugs look similar to some other bugs found in the United States, such as the wheel bug, the Western corsair, and the leaf-footed bug.
Look for these key characteristics to identify a kissing bug:
- 0.5 inch to 1 inch long
- a light brown to black body that may have red, tan, or yellow markings
- a long, oval-shaped body
- six cringe-worthy legs
- a cone-shaped head with antennae
Kissing bugs aren’t as cute as their name suggests. They can carry a dangerous parasite that causes Chagas disease, a condition that needs to be treated right away to avoid potentially lifelong organ damage.
Prevention is key. While not all kissing bug exposures will lead to Chagas disease, it’s important to keep your home a no-bug zone and call your healthcare provider right away if you find clustered bites (especially on your face) or have symptoms of Chagas disease.