What are kissing bugs and how much should you worry about them?
Kissing bugs are one of the latest creatures to cause a scare in the United States. They are bloodsucking insects with the scientific name triatomines. Kissing bugs are called many different names in the U.S.: chinches, cone-nose bugs, walapai tiger and Mexican bed bugs. In Latin American countries they are a feared pest known as besucona, chipo, barberio (Portguese) and vinchuca (Spanish).
For Americans worried about the threat, want the bottom line right off the bat? The next paragraph sums up our OPINION at Home Grown Fun:
If you live in a climate that does not get a hard frost each year and you keep your dog outside in a kennel, in the country, with lights shining nearby at night, and you have rats nests nearby and other rodent/animal hangouts plus garbage and other hiding places around your property, you may be exposing your pet to the kissing bug. If you live in similar conditions and do not clean up debris around and inside your house, and have lots of cracks and crevices in your foundation, doors and windows that could allow creatures to slip inside and hide, you may be opening up your home and health to the kissing bug. The kissing bug does not equal Chagas disease. Certain conditions need to be present for the parasite to be transferred.
Please read the information compiled below to get a complete picture, and remember, the bug does not inject disease causing substances into a pet or human by biting. The feces of the insect carries the potentially dangerous parasite. The feces must enter the host through a bite opening or another exposed area.
Kissing bugs are night feeders and suck the blood of animals, both vertebrates and invertebrates. They are most active in the summer but start appearing in late spring and stay around until fall temperatures turn cold. They DO bite humans and dogs. But how that happens is important for you to understand to keep from becoming frightened unnecessarily. Do not invest in a a bed net just yet.
We’ve seen too much hype and too many false reports on Facebook! Read these 25 important tips about kissing bugs and Chagas disease to get more educated about the insect and the potential risks to you, your family and your pets. Bottom line? Keep your property picked up and learn how to properly identify a kissing bug.
- WHERE ARE KISSING BUGS FOUND? Kissing bugs are a known threat in 21 countries in the Americas, from Mexico to Argentina. Until now, authorities in the United States have not kept reliable statistics on illnesses and human or canine deaths caused by Chagas disease. While actual incidences are a mystery, we do know that the number of positively identified kissing bugs in the United States is increasing and causing government agencies and the public to take notice.
2. WHAT DO KISSING BUGS LOOK LIKE? Kissing bugs are usually dark in color with black, elongated heads. The heads are shaped like an ice cream cone. There are eleven species, each with their own characteristics. This fact makes it tough for us to spot one immediately without help. Some have a yellow, orange or red striped band around their bodies. Sometimes the colored band is solid. It might seem impossible then to identify them if they vary so much in color, size and markings. To be safe, pay close attention to any insects you see in the home or those found in dog beds. Kissing bugs will not be prevalent in the garden because they do not feed on leaves and are not predators of other bugs. Kissing bugs seek out the scent of mammal blood and fluids. IT IS MISLEADING TO SAY THAT THE ASSASSIN BUG FOUND IN THE GARDEN IS A KISSING BUG. SEE #14 BELOW FOR MORE EXPLANATION ON THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN THE BENEFICIAL ASSASSINS AND THIS POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS INSECT.
Adults have wings. Immature kissing bugs do not have wings. The size of a kissing bug ranges from ¾ of an inch or 1 ¼ inch depending on the species and stage of development. The female insect lays white-colored eggs that hatch into larvae. During growth kissing bugs molt several times and then finally get their wings. They require a blood meal to molt and reproduce. They have a relatively long life for an insect: 1-2 years! See the image below as well as different sizes and stages of the kissing bug at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. (Opens in a new window.)
3. WHERE ARE KISSING BUGS IN THE UNITED STATES? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that kissing bugs have been identified in at least 26 Southern U.S. states. West Virginia and New Jersey may be added to the list soon. The only states that have yet to positively report a single kissing bug are: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. As you can surmise, cooler regions tend to be “kissing bug free” – for now. Different species of kissing bugs are more common in different parts of the United States. The most common species for various areas:
Arizona and California: Triatoma rubida and T. protracta with T. rubida more common in Southern Arizona.
Texas and New Mexico: T.gerstaeckeri.
4. DO KISSING BUGS TRANSMIT DISEASE TO HUMANS? Yes. But not every time they bite. Kissing bugs are the only insect known to transmit a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi. Although not all kissing bugs carry the parasite, studies from Texas A&M University show over 50% do. This parasite can cause Chagas disease in humans, a chronic ailment that can live inside the body for years without being detected, often inflicting irreversible damage to the heart, digestive system, and nervous system. Initial evidence of Chagas Disease in its acute stage might range from no sign at all, to swelling at the bite site, to flu-like symptoms. The Illinois Department of Health reports that around 8 million people worldwide are ill from Chagas Disease.
5. HOW DOES THE BUG PASS ON THE PARASITE? The kissing bug’s piercing mouthpart does not directly transmit the parasite when the victim is bitten. The parasite is transmitted when the kissing bug’s feces and expelled liquids enter the bloodstream through the bite wound, a break in the skin or through mucous membranes. The parasite can also be shared when humans and other animals ingest food or other items contaminated with the feces of the kissing bug. Sadly, blood transfusions and also organ transplants pose a risk. U.S. Citizens Take Note: NO cases of Chagas disease have been reported in the United States as a result of blood transfusions or transplants.
6. DO KISSING BUGS TRANSMIT CHAGAS DISEASE TO PETS? Yes. Sometimes. Kissing bugs are bloodsuckers and seek out mammals including dogs. Dogs eat bugs and will snatch up kissing bugs. The parasite inside the digestive tract of the insect can transfer to the dog. Dogs can be bitten too. If the feces of the kissing bug enters through the wound, the dog may become infected. Remember that the insect needs to carry the parasite for it to be transmitted.
Lackland Airforce Base in Texas has been fighting Chagas Disease in dogs for several years. Chagas disease has infected more than 70 trained military dogs since they identified the problem nine years ago. Initial symptoms were shortness of breath, cough and fainting. Some dogs died suddenly. As you can imagine, it is costly to train dogs to detect bombs and drugs. When a dog is lost it is a financial setback as well as a career and personal struggle for the serviceman or servicewoman assigned to that animal. To combat the problem at Lackland, screening was installed around dog kennels to prevent entry of the insect.
Symptoms of Chagas Disease in Dogs
- Loss of appetite
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Enlarged liver or spleen
- Neurological abnormalities (e.g., seizures)
- Inability to exercise
- Increased heart rate (tachycardia)
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Fluid accumulation throughout the body
7. CAN DOGS AT RESCUE SHELTERS BE INFECTED WITH CHAGAS DISEASE? YES. Texas A&M School of Veterinary Science estimates that one out of every ten dogs at state shelters are infected with Chagas. We interviewed technicians at a Texas animal hospital and they told us that there is no cure for Chagas in dogs so pet owners are less apt to want to get their dogs tested for Chagas in the first place.
Chagas disease is a new challenge for all veterinary practices. As is the case with many new threats, funding is not there to investigate, test and develop diagnostics, treatments and preventatives. Check out this video from a local Texas NBC station. It reports about Lackland Air Force Base and dog shelter estimates.
8. HOW DO KISSING BUGS FIND PEOPLE TO BITE? Chagas disease was once thought to be a problem only in areas with substandard housing – picture thatched roofs, poor insulation, structures in disrepair and non-screened windows. Times and climates have changed. These insects are on the move and are being discovered in all types of regions with varied demographics and financial status, from the city to the country.
Kissing bugs are most active at night. They can detect the warmth of a human’s body and odors, particularly those emitted from the skin and breath. Attracted to light, they fly as adults or crawl when young toward odorous targets and seek shelter in nearby rubble, trash heaps, rat’s nests, wood piles, yard trimmings, dog kennels and clutter inside the home. Windows without screens or doorways with gaps underneath provide easy entry for the kissing bug. They have been known to hide under mattresses and nightstands and in the seams of mattresses during the day much like a bed bug. When evening comes, they climb onto the human and most often bite near the eyes or mouth. The insect’s feces might be inadvertently rubbed into the bite area or come in contact with mucous membranes, therefore possibly transmitting the parasite.
9. WHAT TIME OF YEAR ARE KISSING BUGS ACTIVE? Kissing bugs were once only considered a tropical insect of Latin America because they prefer moderate temperatures – not too hot and not too cold. Kissing bugs become more active when evenings warmup in spring. They come out in search of blood meals to grow and reproduce. If it gets too hot they slow down but will still nest with food sources such as rats, opossums, armadillos and even humans. In the fall they become active again until temperatures turn chilly at night. Kissing bugs can be found any time of year in sheltered areas such as attics, bedrooms, pet kennels and rat nests.
10. WHAT DOES THE BITE SITE LOOK LIKE ON A HUMAN AND ARE SOME PEOPLE ALLERGIC TO THE BITE OF A KISSING BUG? The area may or may not swell. It may become red. The puncture would might be overlooked or be mistaken for a mosquito bite. The skin of the face is often the kissing bug’s favorite spot to “pucker up”. There is a percentage of people who will experience severe anaphylactic shock. Like a tick, they get engorged when they are in the process of feeding.
12. HOW LONG HAVE KISSING BUGS BEEN AROUND? The U.S. National Library of Medicine Institutes of Health reports that there is fossil evidence of triotomines (kissing bugs) existing before human evidence on earth! Reports of sighting of the bugs began in the 1800’s and documentation of the parasite started in the 1940’s.
13. HOW MANY PEOPLE DIE FROM CHAGAS DISEASE EACH YEAR? There is more conclusive evidence of deaths due to Chagas in Central and South America. In Brazil alone, between the years of 1999 and 2007, out of 9 million deaths, 54,000 of those death certificates cited Chagas disease as a cause. It is reported by health officials covering the Americas that 18 million people have become infected with the parasite and every year approximately 14,000 deaths can be attributed to Chagas disease outside the United States. CNN reported in 2015 that the estimate of annual deaths due to Chagas across the globe is approximately 11,000.
14. DO KISSING BUGS LOOK LIKE OTHER BUGS? YES. And this has led to many incorrect posts on Facebook with images of insects that are not the kissing bug. Kissing bugs belong to the Reduviidae family of insects. The family Reduviidae is sometimes also referred to as assassin bugs. Most assassin bugs are predators of other insects, NOT HUMANS OR DOGS! The exception is the kissing bug from the genus genus Triatoma. The kissing bug is parasitic to humans or animals. The wheel bug and assassin bugs you find in the garden are not. The wheel bug has a crest at the top of its body. Although it might bite a human as a defensive mechanism, its main goal is to eat other insects and does not carry the parasite that causes Chagas. Other assassin bugs in the garden also attack aphids and leafhoppers. These “good bugs” do not feed on human or pet blood, or transmit diseases to humans or pets. They may bite if handled and it hurts but they will not give you Chagas disease! Kissing bugs have thin legs from top to the bottom. Therefore, you should also not get them confused with leaf-footed bugs.
15. HAS ANYONE DIED FROM CHAGAS DISEASE IN THE UNITED STATES? None that have been recorded officially. That answer cannot be given with certainty because there may have been deaths from Chagas disease that were never detected and recorded. The disease was found in the United States in 1916. Although Chagas is not a new issue, states health authorities are only now beginning to report it officially and many doctors do not screen for it without cause. Today we can estimate how many people have contracted Chagas disease in the United States. Texas A&M University and Oxford Journals Clinical Infectious Diseases estimates that 300,000 Latin American immigrants to the United States have Chagas disease. For more information, go to Texas A&M University or Oxford Journals Clinical Infectious Diseases for detailed and updated information. Go to this webpage for examples of patient cases in the United States and the case for more sophisticated training for physicians about Chagas, the kissing bug and allergic reactions to the bite.
16. WHAT ARE MY CHANCES OF GETTING CHAGAS DISEASE IN THE UNITED STATES? Realize that not all kissing bugs carry the parasite and therefore not all people bitten will contract Chagas disease. This is the most definitive answer available at this time. If you plan to travel to Central or South America, be aware that you could come into contact with kissing bugs while hiking, camping and sleeping in low lying shelters, cabins and guest housing.
17. CAN HUMANS PASS THE PARASITE ON TO OTHER HUMANS? Yes. Chagas can be transmitted by humans through unscreened blood transfusions and from mother to unborn child. It can also be transmitted through transplant procedures. None of these examples have been an issue in the United States.
18. CAN YOU GET CHAGAS DISEASE FROM FOOD? Unlikely, but YES it is possible. Food that is contaminated with the parasite from the feces of the insect and contaminated, unpasteurized drinks including fruit juices can transmit the disease.
19. WHAT CONDITIONS AROUND THE HOME ATTRACT KISSING BUGS? Kissing bus love places that shield them from harm and harsh weather. The list of hiding places is provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
- Chicken coops
- Dog kennels and outdoor god houses
- Rodent nests and animal burrows including those of rats, armadillos, bats and raccoons
- Under brush and rock piles, and around rock structures
- In deep cracks and crevices under cement
- Under porches
- Other resources such as travel websites and worldwide disease control agencies mention cabins and huts in areas where Chagas disease is a known threat.
20. HOW DO I PREVENT THE KISSING BUG FROM ENTERING MY HOME? Use this checklist to make it less likely that the kissing bug will find you and your pets:
- INSPECT WINDOW CASINGS OUTSIDE AT DUSK: Kissing bugs like to hide in the dark during the day but as evening approaches they move toward potential blood meals. They are highly attracted to light. Look around your windows and door frames from the outside at dusk and even after it gets dark to detect unwanted insects like the kissing bug.
- CHECK FOR CRACKS AND GAPS IN, AROUND AND UNDER YOUR HOME: Seal around windows, walls, roofs, and doors. Seal holes and cracks leading to the attic and crawl spaces below the house and leading to the outside. If you can see light through a gap, seal it. Kissing bugs are flat and can squeeze through small areas.
- CLEAN UP RUBBLE AND BRUSH NEAR THE HOME: Remove wood, brush, and rock piles near your house.
- INSTALL TIGHT FITTING SCREENS IN EVERY WINDOW: Use screens on doors and windows and repairing any holes or tears.
- LET THERE BE – DARKNESS: If possible, make sure yard lights are not close to your house (lights can attract the bugs).
- KEEP PETS INSIDE AT NIGHT: Have pets sleep indoors, especially at night.
- PERIODICALLY CLEAN AND INSPECT PET RESTING AREAS: Keep your house and any outdoor pet resting areas clean, in addition to periodically checking both areas for the presence of bugs.
- INSPECT BEDROOMS AT HOME AND WHILE TRAVELING: Look in between the mattress and frame, under the bed stand, in drawers and behind objects. Kissing bugs love to hide in dark places.
21. HOW CAN I PREPARE IF I PLAN TO TRAVEL TO CENTRAL OR SOUTH AMERICA? The international association of for Medical Assistance to Travelers provides information and warning for individual countries. If you plan to travel to any countries in Central of South America, check for their country-specific guidance. See the link at the end of this article to the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers.
22. WHAT DO I DO IF I SEE A KISSING BUG? Do not touch or handle a kissing bug or the area with bare hands. TRY NOT TO SQUISH IT! The feces of the kissing bug transmits the parasite. If possible, coax it into a container of alcohol with a stick using gloves hands and long sleeves and pants. Make sure the container is secure and bring the insect to your health department. If you spot a kissing bug in your house, do a thorough cleaning.
23. CAN I SPRAY CHEMICALS TO KILL OR REPEL THE KISSING BUG? Synthetic pyrethroid sprays have been used successfully in Latin America to eliminate house infestations. Although similar chemicals are available in the United States, none have been specifically approved for use against triatomine bugs. There is not enough cause to start deploying these practices. A licensed pest control operator should be consulted if considering the use of insecticides.
Permethrin-treated bed nets have been proven effective at killing kissing bugs. Would you want to sleep in one if the risk to you was extremely low? Roach traps have not been found effective to lure and kill the kissing bug. Instead of resorting to chemicals, remember this rhyme to put things in perspective: Before you spray, clean away! Get rid of the conditions that attract kissing. Have you ever heard of a more compelling argument to clean up the bedroom clutter and clothes on the floor? A study in 2014 by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health reported that kissing bugs have not yet colonized homes in the United States.
24. WHAT DO I DO IF I THINK I’VE BEEN BITTEN BY A KISSING BUG? See a doctor. Realize that doctors in the United States are not as knowledgeable about Chagas Disease as doctors in Latin America. Go to the emergency room if you experience an anaphylactic reaction. Search your home with gloves hands, long pants and long sleeves. Clean your home and property.
25. WHAT DO I DO IF I THINK I HAVE CHAGAS DISEASE? Check out this statistic reported by Centers of Disease Control and Prevention: Between 20% and 30% of those infected with the parasite result in chronic conditions that aren’t detected until later in life such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, tiredness, and in rare cases, sudden death. If you suspect you have Chagas disease, consult your health care provider. Or, to find a physician familiar with diagnosis and treatment of Chagas disease and other parasitic infections, ask your general practitioner or primary care physician for a referral. You may wish to consider visiting a physician who specializes in infectious diseases. To locate a clinician in your area, please visit the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene’s Clinical Consultants Directory.
Disclaimer: This is information compiled from various sources plus the opinion of the author. The author is not a doctor or an authority on insects and diseases. For official information go to the centers for disease control and other references provided above.