Dangerous ‘kissing bug’ illness spreading across Southern U.S.

A disease caused by "kissing bugs" is more dangerous than it sounds and has sickened over 300,000 in the United States, according to a new report from the American Heart Association (AHA).

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Bloodsucking triatomine bugs spread an illness called Chagas disease. If it is left untreated, it can cause serious cardiac or intestinal complications in up to 30 percent of people infected by the parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi (T cruzi), according to the AHA. This can lead to heart failure or sudden death, officials warn.

While the bugs are mostly found in Central and South America, Chagas disease is becoming more common in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan, according to the AHA.

In the U.S., there are at least 11 species of triatomine bugs, some of which transmit Chagas, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The infection more common in Southern states, including Texas, Florida, and Georgia.

Credit: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Credit: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

There are an estimated 6 million people infected with Chagas disease worldwide.

Many people don't show signs of illness, leading medical researchers to describe Chagas as a "silent killer."

During the night, certain species of triatomine bugs crawl onto people, dogs and other mammals to eat. They often leave bite marks on the face, especially near the eyes and mouth, which helped it get the name "kissing bug" according to researchers at Texas A&M University.

Credit: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Credit: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

When the bugs eat, they typically defecate, leaving feces that can contain the parasite. It can cause an infection if the feces gets underneath the skin.

While most people do not show signs of infection, some people develop swollen eyelids if that's where the infection first occurred.

Others might experience symptoms of fatigue, body aches, or a rash according to researchers at Texas A&M.

In children, the parasite has been known to cause brain swelling, which can cause sudden death.

The condition is usually diagnosed with a blood test and treated with anti-parasitic medication.

If patients go untreated, the disease can become more serious, and about 30 percent of patients develop an enlarged heart, AHA officials warn. That can lead to stroke, irregular heartbeat or heart failure, among other complications.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, triatomine bugs rarely infest indoor areas. There are currently no synthetic chemicals in the U.S. market approved for use against the bugs, officials said.

A licensed pest control operator can help create a plan to kill the bugs, using bednets and curtains.

Other precautions include:

  • Sealing cracks and gaps around windows, walls, roofs, and doors.
  • Removing wood, brush, and rock piles near the house.
  • Using screens on doors and windows and repairing any holes or tears.
  • If possible, making sure yard lights are not close to the house (lights can attract the bugs).
  • Sealing holes and cracks leading to the attic, crawl spaces below the house, and to the outside.
  • Having pets sleep indoors, especially at night.
  • Keeping house and any outdoor pet resting areas clean, in addition to periodically checking both areas for the presence of bugs.

The AHA statement said better diagnostic tests need to be created in order to properly assess the risk of kissing bugs, along with an urgent need to create a plan to protect pregnant women.

If the issues aren't addressed soon, the AHA warns severe heart problems related to the condition could continue to climb.

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