What to Know About the Kissing Bug and the Deadly Disease It Can Pass Along

Kissing bugs have the potential to pass along the deadly Chagas disease.
Kissing bugs have the potential to pass along the deadly Chagas disease.(Getty)

The CDC recently confirmed a case of a young girl in Delaware getting bitten on the face while watching television in her room.

Here is one kiss you’re better off avoiding this summer.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed a sighting of the deadly kissing bug, or triatomine, in Delaware, after a Kent County girl was bitten on the face by the insect while watching TV in her bedroom.

Her family lives near a heavily wooded area, in an older, single-family home, and she was in a room with an air conditioner at the time of the bite, according to the CDC report. The family had not been travelling in the time leading up to the bite, the agency reported.

The family later sent pictures of the insect to Texas A&M University’s Kissing Bug Citizen Science Program, where researchers identified the insect as Triatoma sanguisuga, one of three in the kissing bug family.

The young girl luckily survived without injury, but the parasite has potential to pass along Chagas disease, which can cause stoke, irregular heartbeat and even death.

What is the kissing bug?

Triatomines, known in the U.S. as kissing bugs, exist all over the world, including the southern part of the United States, according to UTHealth.

Three species of kissing bugs, all native to the Americas, can pass along the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi (T. cruzi). The parasite was once only present in Latin America in areas with poor housing conditions, but the CDC warns the may be moving north into states like Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The kissing bug is most active at night and can spread the disease by biting a host and defecating near the site, which passes along the parasite into a host’s tissue, muscles and heart, potentially leading to Chagas disease.  

What is Chagas disease?

Also known as American trypanosomiasis, the sometimes fatal tropical disease can be contracted from the kissing bug but also from mother to baby, by blood transfusion and during organ transplants.

Minor symptoms include swollen eyelids, fever, severe redness, itching, swelling, welts and hives.

More severe symptoms include digestive and cardiac problems like heart failure, enlarged heart, altered heart rate and cardiac arrest. Patients with Chagas disease also are more likely to suffer a stroke.

While the disease can be difficult to identify and is often asymptomatic for years to decades after infection, long-term exposure can be fatal.

Chagas disease is rarely contracted in the U.S., but approximately 300,000 people in the U.S. are currently living with the illness.

What should you do if you think you’ve found or been bitten by a kissing bug?

Consult your primary care doctor if you believe you have been bitten by a kissing bug. Chagas disease can be diagnosed using a blood test and further testing with a specialist may be necessary to treatment.

Local health departments can advise testing and next steps if a kissing bug is found inside the home.

Kissing bugs should never be crushed or touched with bare hands, and should be collected using gloves and a plastic bag if further testing is needed.

Any surface the kissing bug has come into contact with should be cleaned with bleach and water.

How can you protect yourself?

Kissing bugs are most often found in older, damaged homes so homeowners can limit infestation by keeping the property clean and maintained, including treating windows and door frames, corners of rooms, and pet houses.  

Piles, leaves, animal nests and burrows should be cleared from the property to reduce areas where kissing bugs may find shelter. Woodpiles should be stored above the ground and away from the home.

Because kissing bugs are most active at night, dogs and cats should be brought indoors overnight or kept in a clean and well-sealed environment. Pests like wild rodents or birds living in or under the house should also be removed from the property.

While a single kissing bug may be no cause for concern, a large number of adults may suggest a breeding population and homeowners should contact local pest control.