Why You Don’t Want to Pucker up for the Kissing Bug

posted: 11/24/15
by: Danny Clemens
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Despite its romantic name, the kissing bug carries with it a potentially lethal parasite that is anything but pleasant.

The phrase "kissing bug" actually refers to nearly a dozen different insects in the Triatominae family. Now found in North and South America, the kissing bug makes it home both outdoors and indoors, especially in substandard structures that are prone to cracks.

Kissing bugs pose a threat somewhat similar to mosquitos -- the nocturnal insects feed on the blood of humans and other vertebrate animals, and are known to carry the potentially fatal Trypanosoma cruzi parasite. Unlike a mosquito, however, the kissing bug transmits the parasite in its feces, which must enter a victim's bloodstream in order for transmission to occur.

Kissing bug
Glenn Seplak/Flickr

The bug is known to bite humans on their lips and face, which often results in the insect's feces getting rubbed into a victim's eyes. Triatominae's affinity for facial feeding is what earned it the name "kissing bug."

When left untreated, a T. cruzi infection can turn into a nasty case of Chagas disease, also known as American trypanosomiasis. Initially asymptotic, Chagas can develop into a chronic condition that, in the worst of cases, potentially causes severe inflammation of the heart and brain, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Although medication can wipe out a T. cruzi infection in its early stages, there is no cure for the disease's advanced stages, nor is there a vaccine. Fortunately, fewer than 30% of infectees develop the disease's most debilitating symptoms; the majority remain infected yet asymptomatic.

In addition to posing a parasitic threat, the insect is also a viral sensation. Experts believe that kissing bugs are responsible for 12 recent cases of T. cruzi infections across the southern United States, chatter about which is currently trending on social media.


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