Six things you probably don’t know about kissing bugs

Monday, July 29th, 2019

By Emma Ea Ambrose 

The Center for Disease Control recently issued a memo regarding the presence of the Triatoma sanguisuga insect in 12 states, including Indiana. Triatoma sanguisuga is better known by its common name, the kissing bug. Kissing bugs, which are common in Central and South America, can carry Chagas, a parasitic disease. The CDC estimates roughly 8 million people in South America are living with Chagas disease, which in its early stages produces flu-like symptoms but can become chronic or even fatal if left untreated.

1. The risk posed by Chagas in Indiana is very low.

Cate Hill, professor of entomology, said despite the kissing bugs’ presence in Indiana, the chances of contracting Chagas are very low.

“Species of kissing bugs can feed on lots of different vertebrates, whether that’s dogs or humans or various forms of wildlife,” Hill added. “They are less prevalent in the United States, in part, because of our housing construction. Most of our housing does not have cracks and crevices where the bugs could gain entrance or hide.” Screen doors and windows act as an effective barrier against the insect.

2. Chagas is not spread through the kissing bug’s bite

There are several misconceptions about kissing bugs, Hill continued, and perhaps the most common is that the insects transmit Chagas through their bite, like the way a tick spreads Lyme disease.

“If you have an infected bug feeding on you it is likely to defecate during the feeding process,” Hill said. “The feces can contain the parasite and if this is rubbed into the wound or introduced to the mucosal membrane then infection is possible. Chagas is not transmitted through the bite.”

Photo of a kissing bug, which has a flat, cup-shapped abdoment. 
Photo credit: Photo Credit:James Gathany for Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Photo of a kissing bug, which has a flat, cup-shapped abdoment. Photo credit: Photo Credit:James Gathany for Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Boxelder bugs are often mistaken for kissing bugs. Photo Credit: John Obermeyer for
Purdue Univeristy.
Boxelder bugs are often mistaken for kissing bugs. Photo Credit: John Obermeyer for Purdue Univeristy.

3. There are many kissing bug look-a-likes in Indiana

According to Tim Gibb, professor of entomology, the kissing bug strongly resembles other home-invading insect species, like the boxelder bug, which is common in Indiana but poses no public health risk. For this reason, it has been very difficult for entomologists around the state to rely on the public to report sightings of kissing bugs.

4. Chagas is treatable

The mortality rate of Chagas is between 20 and 30 percent. The number seems high, Hill said, because the disease disproportionately affects people that lack access to good healthcare and treatment.

Signs of the disease’s initial stage can include: fever, rash, chills, swelling of the eyelids and other flu-like symptoms. At this stage, Chagas can be treated with an anti-parasitic. If left untreated, however, the disease often progresses to a chronic phase, which is more challenging to treat and often fatal.

5. There is no evidence of local Chagas transmission in Indiana

There are no known cases of Chagas in Indiana, Hill said. If Indiana did see a case of Chagas acquired locally, she said, she would need to reevaluate the level of risk posed to Hoosiers.

6. If you see a kissing bug do not squash it or touch it

Squashing or even touching a kissing bug can put you at risk of contracting Chagas. The best thing to do, Hill advised, is to trap the bug in a plastic bag or container. “We don’t want to squash the bug or get any bug poop on us. Ideally, after placing it in a container you might do some research about what kissing bugs look like and, if you’re reasonably certain it meets the criteria, send the sample to an entomologist,” Hill added. Purdue’s Plant and Pest Diagnostic Lab is one place bugs can be sent for identification.

 While entomologists will keep their eyes trained on kissing bugs, other vector-borne illnesses pose a much larger threat to Hoosiers than Chagas. Late summer is when transmission of the West Nile virus peaks and Hoosiers are at risk from Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses almost year-round, although the risk is highest during the spring and summer months

“We really don’t want to take our eye off some of the higher risk arthropods and diseases right now,” Hill said.




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