What Are Kissing Bugs? Do They Make You Sick?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on December 27, 2023
11 min read

Kissing bugs are a group of blood-feeding bugs that live in the Southern and Western United States, Mexico, and parts of Central and South America. They're called kissing bugs because if they bite you, it's usually on your face around your mouth, probably while you sleep.

The U.S. has 11 species of kissing bugs.  Texas A&M University is one of the universities in the U.S. that takes bugs for identification. They have a Kissing Bugs & Chagas Disease in the United States Community Science Program, and their scientists say that they get the most kissing bugs from three states: Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. These three states also seem to have more species than other states. 

Kissing bugs aren't themselves dangerous, but about 50% of the bugs in the U.S. are infected with a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi. This parasite lives in the gut of the kissing bug and it can cause Chagas (pronounced CHAH-gus) disease in the people it infects. Chagas disease is also called American trypanosomiasis. 

It's rare in the U.S., but you might get infected with Trypanosoma cruzi when the bugs come out at night to feed on your blood. After they feed on your blood, they poop on you. It's gross to think about, but if you scratch or rub yourself while you sleep, you may get their poop in your eyes, nose, mouth, or the bite wound. This can infect you with the parasite. That's not the only way people get infected, but it's the most common way.

Effective treatments for Chagas disease are available, but if it's left untreated, it can be life threatening. This infection can be especially serious in people with weakened immune systems, such as people who take chemotherapy or who are also infected with HIV. Young children are also at risk of swelling in their heart or brain from the infection, and this can be life-threatening. About 20%-30% of the people who are infected get complications from it, including:

  • Heart problems, such as an enlarged heart, heart failure, changes in heart rhythm, or sudden death from heart attack.
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as an enlarged esophagus or colon, which can cause trouble swallowing food or pooping.

Unfortunately, many people don't know they were bitten by a kissing bug because they may not have any symptoms of Trypanosoma cruzi infection until they've had the infection for months. And if you do have symptoms at first, they're often similar to what you would get with many other infections, such as fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, rash, loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea. Since it's so hard to recognize if you're infected, you may not get treatment right away. This is why it's important to prevent an infection in the first place.

It's very rare to get a Trypanosoma cruzi infection from a kissing bug bite in the U.S. But if kissing bugs live where you do, here’s what you need to know.

Kissing bugs are in an insect family called reduviidae. Some species in this bug family are called assassin bugs because they kill and eat other bugs. Even though kissing bugs are in this family, they aren't assassin bugs. 

The bite from an assassin bug can hurt because they have strong mouthparts for eating other bugs or sucking juice out of a plant stem. Kissing bugs don't have strong mouthparts, so their bites don't usually hurt. Also, kissing bugs can pass on the parasite that causes Chagas disease, but assassin bugs don't.

Adult kissing bugs are usually 1/2- to 1-inch long, or about the size of a penny. They have brown or black bodies, with a band around the edge of their body that's striped with red, orange, or yellow. They have long, thin legs without thicker areas like some other bugs have. They also have straight, thin mouthparts that they may tuck under their body.


Two bugs that look like kissing bugs are the wheel bug and the western corsair. These are assassin bugs that are in the same family of bugs as the kissing bug. However, they don't carry the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite in their stomach, so they don't cause Chagas disease.

Adult wheel bugs are about 1 1/2 inches long, so it's a bit bigger than a kissing bug. Wheel bugs are dull gray, and they have a crest on their back that looks like a wheel or gear.

Adult western corsairs are about 0.6-0.8 inches long, so they're a similar size as the kissing bug. They have an orange-red body, and their front legs are a bit thicker than their back legs. They have a large yellow dot on each wing that looks like one dot when the wings close over each other. They live mostly in the western part of the U.S.

Another bug that may look like the kissing bug is the leaf-footed bug. Adults are about 0.75-1 inch long, so they are about the same size as a kissing bug. They have narrow brown bodies and thicker patches on their back legs that look like leaves. This may be the easiest way for you to tell the difference between a leaf-footed bug and a kissing bug: Kissing bugs don't have enlarged areas on their back legs. Leaf-footed bugs have strong mouthparts to suck juice out of the leaves, shoots, and fruit of plants. They probably won't bite you, but they may eat your tomato plants.

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

You may see clusters of bites around your mouth or on your face. Kissing bug bites are usually painless, but you may have swelling and itching that can last for a week. You may also see tiny bloodstains on your sheets or pillow or find a bug in your bed or around your pillow.

Kissing bug bite mark

It's usually not possible to tell what bit you just from the bite mark. As with other bug bites, some people have strong reactions to kissing bug bites and some don't. You may not even even notice you were bitten. 

The best way to tell what bug bit you is to have the bug identified by an expert. If you were bitten in the U.S. and have the bug that you think bit you, you can send a photo to Texas A&M University and they may be able to identify the bug from the photo. Or the Department of Health Services in your state may be able to identify bugs that you send to them. Your doctor may be able to help you find out where to send them, or you can check with your local or state health department directly.



Kissing bugs live in the Southern U.S., Mexico, Central America, and South America as far south as southern Argentina. They've been seen in the U.S. in 29 states, including as far north and west as Ohio, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. They've been seen in Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, but they are probably rare in those areas. They've also been seen in Hawaii. 

They usually live close to animals they can feed on, including mammals (like dogs and humans), birds (like chickens), and reptiles. In areas of Central and South America, the bugs often nest in the cracks and holes of houses made from mud, straw, or palm thatch. In the U.S., most houses have plastered walls and sealed entryways, so they can't get inside. If you see them inside, they'll most likely be near where your pets sleep, in areas where mice or rats nest, and in or around your bed or the bedroom furniture. 

They're most likely found outside in places such as:

  • Under your porch
  • Between rocks
  • Under cement
  • In rock, wood, or brush piles or hiding underneath the bark on trees
  • In animal burrows or rodent (squirrels, mice, rats) nests
  • In doghouses or kennels
  • In chicken coops or houses


Kissing bugs aren't usually dangerous unless they bite you. That's because their bites can cause a couple of medical problems:

Allergic reactions. Some people may be allergic to the spit of a kissing bug, and these people may develop a reaction to the bite, including a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis (pronounced a-nuh-fuh-lak-suhs). Symptoms of an allergic reaction include redness (depending on your natural skin tone), itching, swelling, welts, or hives. If you've ever had an allergic reaction to a bug bite, talk to your doctor because your risk of having anaphylaxis from any bug bite is higher than for others. Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening. If you have anaphylaxis, you need to go to the emergency room right away. Also, you may need to keep medicine, like an epinephrine auto-injector, with you at all times in case you get a bite from a bug you're allergic to.

If you have an allergic reaction, that doesn't mean you were infected with the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite. Allergic reactions are usually to the spit of the bug, but the parasite is in their poop.  

Chagas disease. About half of all kissing bugs in the U.S. have the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi in their poop. This parasite causes Chagas disease. In most people, Chagas disease causes mild or no symptoms. But in some people, especially really young people and people with weakened immune systems, the infection can lead to serious heart problems or disease in the intestines.

The CDC says that about 300,000 people in the U.S. have Trypanosoma cruzi infection. Most of these people were likely infected while visiting or living in Central and South America. Kissing bugs live in parts of the U.S., but the CDC has only recorded a few cases of Chagas disease from a kissing bug bite in people who were living in the U.S. when they were infected. 

Home remedies can help stop the itch and prevent an infection from the bite. If it’s itchy or uncomfortable, you can help your healing in the following ways:

  • Wash the bite with soap, which will lower the chance you get an infection.
  • Use calamine lotion or other anti-itch cream to help stop your itch.
  • Use a cold pack to stop your swelling.
  • See your doctor if you think you have an infection.

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.

It can be hard to know where your bite came from, especially if the bug is gone when you wake up. Check in and around your bed and bedroom furniture. Don't touch the bug with your bare hands. Use a glove or plastic bag to catch the bug without touching it directly. Keep the bug in the plastic bag or a small vial or container. Clean any areas the bug touched with soap and water or a bleach solution. Don't put undiluted bleach on your skin. You can make a dilute bleach solution by mixing one part bleach to 99 parts water. For instance, you can mix about a teaspoon of household bleach to 16 ounces of water to make a solution to clean places the bug touched.

Put the bug in the freezer to kill it and to preserve the DNA so a lab can test it for Trypansoma cruzi infection. Write down the date and time of day you found it, if it was caught indoors or outdoors, and any people or animals it may have bitten. 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.

It's easy to diagnose Trypansoma cruzi infection with a blood test. See your doctor to be tested if you think you've been bitten by a bug and you:

  • Live in an area where a lot of kissing bugs live: the Southern U.S., Mexico, and Central and South America
  • Travel in areas where kissing bugs cause Chagas disease, such as Mexico and Central and South America
  • Develop any symptoms of Chagas disease


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 or around your home or live in an area with Chagas disease, take the following 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.
  • Wear protective clothing, apply insect repellent to exposed skin, use bed nets treated with long-duration insecticides.
  • Clean or cook your food thoroughly.

Do kissing bugs fly?

Yes, but only the adults. Kissing bugs grow through five juvenile stages on their way to adulthood. In their juvenile stages, they don't have wings. 

What attracts kissing bugs?

Kissing bugs may be attracted to the heat and smells from wild animal nests and outdoor dog kennels. Also, dogs kept in outdoor kennels may eat kissing bugs and get infected with Trypansoma cruzi. It can be difficult to keep kissing bugs away from outdoor dog kennels and wild animal nests, but you can help by keeping the areas around and under your house clean. Don't give bugs a place to hide around your house: Clear away wild animal nests and keep outdoor animal kennels and enclosures clean.