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International Kissing Day

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Give a kiss to someone you love on International Kissing Day! Kissing is a pleasant activity for both giver and receiver – right? A kiss from a dog? It depends on who you are. A kiss from a bug? Most people would find that repulsive. The kissing bug may have a cute name, but its intentions are far from affectionate.

Kissing bugs are nocturnal, blood-feeding insects. They occur in 28 states in the United States with the highest density in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona; however, when people say “kissing bug,” they are referring to the infamous South American Triatoma infestans, the barber bug or simply “kissing bug,” which is the main transmitter of Chagas disease.

Kissing bugs get their name from their habit of biting humans near the mouth. A kiss, kind of, but a lot more sinister. The bite is mostly painless and usually occurs at night on a sleeping person. The bite itself cannot transmit the microbe which causes Chagas disease. Those microbes only exist in the feces of the bug. Like most bloodsucking insects, kissing bugs defecate while feeding to make room for more food. The sleeping person may then scratch the itchy bite area, rubbing infected feces into the bite wound or into their nose or eyes.

Chagas disease may present itself in humans with mild flu-like symptoms or with no symptoms at all. Symptoms include fever, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, and/or swelling around the bite area. Because of the vague symptoms which resemble a variety of other illnesses, Chagas disease can be difficult to diagnose. In cases where symptoms are present, the symptoms last for about eight to twelve weeks. Seventy percent of infected people who show symptoms will have no further issues with the disease for the rest of their lives.

The other thirty percent of infected people are not so lucky. The acute or short-term symptoms will stop after eight to twelve weeks, and everything will seem to return to normal… for another ten to thirty years. Then the disease kicks back up and causes chronic or long-term issues like enlargement of the ventricles of the heart and altered heart rate, both of which can lead to heart attacks. Some people also develop an enlarged esophagus or colon, causing digestive problems.

There is no vaccine for Chagas disease, and it can affect dogs as well as other mammals. The best we can do is to prevent kissing bugs from coming into contact with people and pets. Although fifty percent of all kissing bugs in the United States carry the microbe which causes Chagas disease, our local kissing bugs prefer to bite other mammals over humans. In this regard, we are relatively safe from contracting Chagas disease. In South America, though, the barber bug is a true domestic pest and prefers to live near humans and is the main transmitter of this disease. Thus far, the barber bug has not established itself in the United States.

Treatment of Chagas disease is difficult and unpleasant, as most of the drugs have unwanted side effects. In addition, these drugs are only available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) after consultation with a physician.


Resources:
Kissing Bugs and Chagas Disease in the United States. Texas A&M University. Agriculture and Life Sciences. Website: http://kissingbug.tamu.edu/. Accessed June 2017.