Kissing Bugs Found in the United States

Kissing bugs spread Chagas disease.

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In the fall of 2015, a kissing bug scare gripped many parts of the southern United States. Although kissing bugs are known to cause Chagas disease in South and Central America, reports of this infection in the U.S. were once unheard of. However, now it seems that these harmful little insects have made their way stateside.

What Are Kissing Bugs?

Kissing bugs are a type of triatomine or reduviid bug which can carry a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi (T.

Cruzi).  It's important to note that not all kissing bugs harbor T. Cruzi.   Eleven types of triatomine bugs have been found in southern United States, including in Florida, Texas, and California. Overall, kissing bugs can be found in 28 states

Triatomine bugs are nocturnal and feed on the blood of mammals (humans), birds and reptiles. Kissing bugs get their name because they usually bite near the mouth of a sleeping person. After feeding, kissing bugs can defecate on the host. When a person scratches the bite from a kissing bug, this feces, which contains the parasite T. Cruzi, is introduced into the blood stream thus infecting the host with Chagas disease (i.e., American trypanosomiasis). Alternatively, if the kissing bug defecates on or near a mucus membrane like the eye  or mouth, T. Cruzi can make its way into the body across the mucus membrane. 

According to Chagas disease researchers at Texas A&M University:

Infection with Trypanosoma cruzi can cause Chagas disease in humans, dogs, and other mammals. Kissing bugs can transmit the parasite to hosts by biting and subsequently defecating near the site of the bite. The parasites live in the digestive tract of the bugs and are shed in the bug feces. When infectious bug fecal material contaminates the mucous membranes or the site of a bug bite on a mammal, transmission of the parasite can occur ... The parasite can be transmitted congenitally, through blood transfusion, and through transplantation of infected organs.

Fortunately even in those people who are bit by kissing bugs, the transmission of T. Cruzi into host circulation is uncommon. In other words, just because you've been bitten by a kissing bug doesn't mean that you'll develop Chagas disease.

Kissing bugs usually live in the nooks and crannies of homes and other structures. These bugs are often found in substandard housing plagued with rodent infestation. These bugs can also be found under mattresses, in chicken coops, in dog kennels, in rock piles, in piles of firewood or brush, beneath porches, and so forth.

Kissing bugs resemble plenty of other triatomine bugs and beetles and are often confused with assassin bugs and wheel bugs, both of which don't feed on human blood and don't spread Chagas disease. Of note, unlike other similar-looking bugs, kissing bugs typically live indoors.

Chagas Disease

Each year, about seven million people worldwide (mostly in Latin America) are infected with Chagas disease. In most people, infection is self-limited (goes away on its own) and resolves after two months.

Typical symptoms of acute infection with Chagas disease include the following:

  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Swelling of the eyelids
  • Swelling at the bite mark
  • Headache
  • Pallor
  • Chest pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy)

Some people who are infected by T. Cruzi never show symptoms of the acute disease. However, less than half of those infected go on to experience symptoms of chronic disease. These symptoms are potentially deadly and include the following:

  • Irregular heartbeat which can cause sudden death
  • Enlarged heart which can result in heart failure
  • Dilation of the colon and esophagus which causes problems with digestion
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Increased risk of an aneurysm

In order to prevent such life-threatening complications, it's important that Chagas disease is treated during the acute phase.

If taken early enough, antiparasitic drugs like benznidazole and nifurtimox are nearly 100 percent effective in treating Chagas disease. However, their efficacy diminishes in people who have been infected with Chagas disease for some time. Treatment with these drugs lasts about two months, and pregnant women and people with kidney or liver failure shouldn't take these drugs.

Prevention of Chagas Disease

If you live in an area where kissing bugs are found (i.e., are endemic), you can take the following preventive measures to reduce your potential for exposure to Chagas disease:

  • Get an exterminator to spray the house with insecticides
  • Undertake home improvements to fill in nooks and crannies where kissing bugs usually hide
  • Maintain good hygiene especially with respect to food storage and consumption
  • Maintain a clean bedroom environment
  • Maintain a clean environment for your pets

If you suspect that your have been exposed to kissing bugs and are now infected with Chagas disease, contact a physician immediately and inform her of your concern. Please remember that treatment for Chagas disease is most effective when instituted early during the acute phase of the disease.


Kirchhoff LV, Rassi A, Jr. Chagas Disease and African Trypanosomiasis. In: Kasper D, Fauci A, Hauser S, Longo D, Jameson J, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2015.

Texas A&M University College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. Kissing Bugs & Chagas.