What Are Kissing Bugs? Do They Make You Sick?

Kissing bugs are blood-feeding insects that live in the southern and western United States, Mexico, and parts of Central and South America. They don’t kiss. But they might bite you, probably while you sleep.

Most bites are harmless. Sometimes, though, they can cause allergic reactions or spread disease. Very rarely, they can lead to heart disease or sudden deaths. If they live where you do, here’s what you need to know.

How to Spot Them

The bugs have brown or black wings, sometimes with a ring of red, orange, or yellow stripes on the edge. They’re usually ½- to 1-inch-long, about the size of a penny. They’re also called cone-nosed bugs, bloodsuckers, cinches, and triatomine bugs.

Like mosquitoes and ticks, kissing bugs need blood to live. They usually suck it from animals, including dogs, but sometimes they bite people. They hide during the day and come out at night to eat.

Bite Marks

Most of the time, the bites don’t hurt. You may sleep right through them. The bugs might hit anywhere on the body, including the face, head, arms, and feet. Kissing bugs are so named because they like to bite around the mouth or eyes.

You’ll often see 2-15 bite marks in one area and maybe redness and swelling. It might be hard to tell them apart from other bug bites, minor skin irritations, or infections.

Where Do They Live?

If you draw a line on a map from California to Pennsylvania, kissing bugs are mostly found south of it. In the U.S., the bugs rarely live indoors. They’re more likely to be:

  • Under porches
  • In piles of leaves or wood
  • In outdoor dog houses or chicken coops
  • In nests and burrows of wild animals like rodents and opossums

Are They Harmful?

Most of the time, kissing bug bites are harmless. But they sometimes can cause two kinds of problems:

  • Allergic Reactions. Some people are allergic to kissing bug saliva. The skin near the bite might become red, swollen, and itchy. The most serious risk is anaphylactic shock. That’s when your blood pressure drops and you have trouble breathing. It can be deadly if you don’t get emergency treatment.
  • Chagas Disease. Kissing bugs sometimes have a parasite in their poop that causes Chagas disease. In most people, that causes mild or no symptoms. But in some, the infection can lead to serious, long-term heart problems or disease in the intestines.

Chagas disease from a kissing bug is very rare in humans in the U.S. But the number of cases is growing in southern parts of the country.

Continued

Treatment

You usually don’t need to do anything. You can wash the bitten area with soap and water. If it’s itchy or uncomfortable you can use:

If you’re in an area where Chagas disease is a serious health concern and you get a kissing bug bite, see your doctor if:

  • You feel like you have a flu with a fever, nausea, or tiredness
  • Your eyelids are swollen
  • The bite looks infected (it’s red, painful, and swollen)

If you suddenly have trouble breathing, feel dizzy, or vomit, you may have a serious allergic reaction. Call 911 or go to the emergency room right away.

What Bit Me?

It can be hard to know where the bite came from, especially if the bug is gone when you wake up. You could check under your nightstand or your mattress. Scoop up any bugs you find into a container with gloved hands and clean the area the bug touched with bleach.

Then call your local health department or extension service to see if someone can help you figure out what kind of bug you have. A local college or university could help you, too.

Prevention

Most people in the U.S. don’t need to worry about kissing bugs. They don’t usually infest houses here, though an occasional bug might get inside.

If you’ve noticed them in your home or live in an area with Chagas disease, you can take steps to keep them away:

  • Seal cracks and gaps in your home to keep bugs out. Put screens in your windows and patch any holes.
  • Keep chicken coops and other animal cages away from your home.
  • Move piles of leaves, firewood, and rocks out of your yard.
  • Turn off outdoor lights near the house at night so they won’t attract bugs.
  • Clean your dog or cat indoor beds regularly.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on December 21, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “Triatomine Bug FAQs,” “Parasites -- American Trypanosomiasis (also known as Chagas Disease).”

UpToDate: “Reactions to bites from kissing bugs (primarily genus Triatoma),” “Insect Bites.”

Mayo Clinic: “Chagas Disease.”

World Health Organization: “Chagas disease (American trypanosomiasis).”

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension: “Conenose or Kissing Bugs.”

Texas A&M University Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences: “Kissing Bugs and Chagas Disease in the United States: A Brief Introduction,” “Kissing Bugs and Chagas Disease in the United States: Found a Kissing Bug?” “Kissing Bugs and Chagas Disease in the United States: FAQ.”

American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology: “Anaphylaxis.”

The University of Arizona: “UA Helps Community with Kissing-Bug Problem.”

Iowa State University: “American Trypanosomiasis.”

 

 

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