They have a cute name, but what can come from a bite from kissing bugs is anything but.
Kissing bugs — scientifically known as Triatominae — are inch-long insects that look like cockroaches and feed on the blood of mammals, often biting lips and faces of people while they’re sleeping.
Many of these bugs carry the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which can cause the potentially deadly Chagas disease when the infected bugs bite and defecate into the wound, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 8 million cases of the disease are diagnosed throughout Latin and South America, where it’s most prevalent.
However, the bugs are making their way north and have been reported in 28 states, mostly in the South. Fifty percent of bugs found in the U.S. are infected with the deadly parasite, according to CNN.
The CDC says that Chagas disease has two phases: Acute and chronic.
The acute phase can last for a few weeks or months and mostly goes without the realization that it could be Chagas because patients experience very common ailments like fatigue, body aches, headache, fever, rash, diarrhea, vomiting and loss of appetite. The most recognizable marker of the disease is the Romaña’s sign, a swelling of the eyelid on the bitten side of the face.
Most symptoms will go away on their own, but if not treated, the infection can persist, potentially causing severe infections and inflammation in the brain and heart in young children and those with weakened immune systems.
The chronic phase can lay dormant for years, but some people develop complications like an enlarged heart, esophagus or colon, heart failure and cardiac arrest.
A doctor will perform an electrocardiogram to check on the health of a patient’s heart if she believes Chagas is the culprit of the symptoms. No matter the outcome of the EKG, the patient will likely be put on antiparasitic medication to kill the parasite, or other medications meant to deal with the disease’s symptoms.
How to prevent Chagas disease
Because the bugs like to hide in dark places, you should seal any cracks or gaps in your home, including in windows and doors. Use screens on your doors and have pets sleep inside, and remove any brush or wood piles near your house.
But most of all, don’t panic. Though more cases are being presented in the United States, Hamer said that most people shouldn’t worry.
“It’s great we are heightening our awareness — but we don’t need to be terribly scared,” she told CNN. “The bug has to be there, blood feed, and the parasite needs to be rubbed in, and that’s a lot to have to happen… it’s more rare for kissing bugs to feed on people than mosquitos to feed on people.”