Bite From This Tiny Insect Can Result in Deadly Heart Disease

Known as kissing bugs because of their tendency to suck blood from near people’s mouths, these insects are widespread in the Americas. (Image:  Pavel Kirillov  via  wikimedia  CC BY-SA 2.0)
Known as kissing bugs because of their tendency to suck blood from near people’s mouths, these insects are widespread in the Americas. (Image: Pavel Kirillov via wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0)

Many people avoid smoking and drinking as precautionary measures to prevent the onset of heart disease. Unfortunately, you can still get heart disease simply from being bitten by a tiny insect known as Triatominae.

Triatominae and Chagas disease

Also known as kissing bugs because of their tendency to suck blood from near people’s mouths, Triatominae are widespread in the Americas. It was in Brazil that the insect’s role as a disease vector was discovered.

Chagas disease is actually not caused by Triatominae themselves. Instead, the disease is caused by a parasite known as Trypanosoma cruzi. The Triatomine bug acts as a carrier and passes the parasite along in its feces. After the bugs bite human beings in the night, typically around the eyes or mouth, some of their feces may also be left on the skin. It is when this feces is rubbed into the eyes, mouth, or opening in the skin that the parasites enter the human body.

After the bugs bite human beings in the night, typically around the eyes or mouth, some of their feces may also be left on the skin. (Image via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

After the bugs bite human beings in the night, typically around the eyes or mouth, some of their feces may also be left on the skin. (Image via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

While the disease commonly occurs in South and Central America and affects an estimated 8 million people, the southern states of the U.S., like Texas and Florida, have reported a good number of cases. Within the U.S., the vast majority of people infected with the disease are believed to have carried the infection into the country. People from European nations like Switzerland, France, Spain, etc., have also been diagnosed with Chagas disease, albeit at lower rates.

Though the most common cause of Chagas disease is the bite of Triatomine bugs, the disease has also been known to spread through blood transfusions, consuming uncooked food that may contain the feces of insects, and from mother to child during pregnancy.

Symptoms of Chagas disease

Signs of Chagas disease will not be visible immediately. Initial stages of the condition can be ascertained by redness and swelling of the skin, rashes on the skin, high fever and headaches, fatigue, muscle aches, and vomiting. The liver or spleen becomes enlarged and the lymph nodes also turn swollen. The tissues around the eyes will likely swell as well.

When the disease reaches a chronic stage, symptoms can be much more severe. The heartbeat becomes irregular and you sense abnormality in heartbeat sensations. There is a risk that the heart might be affected. The organ can become dilated, increasing chances of a stroke. Fainting is common in such advanced conditions. Swallowing food will become very difficult and the person will suffer from a dilated colon, chronic constipation, and abdominal pain.

Risks and treatment

The parasite is known to survive in the body for several decades. The vast majority of people infected with the parasite never show any symptoms of Chagas disease. However, about 30 percent of the infected population is estimated to become chronically ill from the parasite.

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The vast majority of people infected with the parasite never show any symptoms of Chagas disease. (Image via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

When traveling to South American countries, it is usually advised to avoid drinking Acai or unpasteurized sugar cane juices since they tend to contain the feces of Triatomine bugs. And when looking for a place to stay, avoid homes with thatch roofs or unplastered adobe walls.

In the United States, Chagas disease is usually treated with anti-trypanosomal medication like benznidazole or nifurtimox. These are usually only available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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