What an ominous name to give an insect – “kissing” bugs – and one that very likely does not conjure up images of good things to come. In fact, the species of “true bugs” that we have labeled as Kissing Bugs are not our friends, for they are blood feeders that often partake of this activity while we are sleeping, biting us where skin and plenty of blood are available, which often may be around the face. With their ability to bite us and feed completely undetected they are very successful in this lifestyle. There are a number of different species of kissing bugs in North and South America, all in the genus Triatoma, the scientific name that includes these insects. One of the worst of them, though, is Triatoma infestans, a common insect in homes in much of Latin America, and one which spreads a very nasty disease to the people it feeds on. More on that in just a bit.
Kissing bugs are also called other things, such as cone-nosed bugs, the sacred bed bug, the china bed bug, and in Latin America they are referred to as “vinchucas”, which could refer to many of the species there. These insects are in the same family of “bugs” as some very beneficial kinds, referred to as Assassin Bugs. These are predatory insects that feed on other insects, capturing them with their front legs and plunging their hollow beaks into that insect to draw out the liquid nourishment inside. There is even one species in the United States called the Masked Hunter – Reduvius personatus – that is able to make a living within homes, where it feeds on, among other insects it finds there, another little blood feeder called The Bed Bug. While this one is capable of biting people it does so only in self-defense, and is not likely to feed on humans or our pets.
We offer you another BugInfo article on the various kinds of assassin bugs, but this short one is going to cover the Kissing Bugs, and their impact on human health. Two major species occur in the U.S., one in the west and one in the eastern and southern states, and these may be found hiding in bedrooms, close to their potential food resources. Humans are not their favorites though, as these insects prefer to feed on rodents such as wood rats, but human blood appears to be a perfectly acceptable substitute. With the good construction of most homes in the U.S. the ability for kissing bugs to enter the home is far more limited than it is in many rural areas of Latin America, where homes are constructed with available materials and many openings exist from the outside. You can prevent problems in your own home by ensuring windows and doors either stay closed or are tightly screened. If you live near wooded areas or grassy fields inspect for wood rat nests, and if they are found near your home steps could be taken to discourage their presence, helping to keep the associated bugs further from you as well.
The very serious disease that can be spread to humans by kissing bugs is called Chagas Disease, and at any moment there are over 20 MILLION people in Latin America infected with the disease. Of those infected about 50,000 die from the disease each and every year. This is a terrible disease that we currently are fortunate not to have in the United States, but the potential very definitely exists. We have the vectors (the bugs that can spread the disease) and the pathogen (the microscopic protozoan that causes the disease) very likely enters the U.S. in infected immigrants on a regular basis. All it takes is for the two to get together to infect the insect populations in this country as well. A number of cases that have occurred along the southern border of Texas, adjacent to Mexico, may well be domestic cases, but it has not been determined for certain that the infections were obtained within the borders of the U.S.
Chagas Disease can cause high fever, rashes, and a general fatigue, leaving victims unable to work. It is sometimes referred to as “American Sleeping Sickness”, in reference to this symptom of a lack of energy and inability to function well. In poor areas of Latin America this can cause an enormous economic hardship for families attempting to keep food on their tables, and this along with the very high mortality from the disease places Chagas Disease among the most important tropical diseases in the world.
The species called Triatoma infestans is particularly important in this disease cycle, for it appears to live almost exclusively within dwellings that house people. These insects, in the adult stage, have wings and are capable of flight. However, in the home with food so close by they don’t bother to fly anywhere, finding it most convenient and effective just to walk from their hiding place to their blood meal. Vinchucas are active only at night, when they emerge from hiding and begin waving their antennae around to pick up signals that will guide them to a sleeping person. Their antennae are extremely sensitive to three stimuli – odors, heat, and infrared light, which is given off by warm bodies. They are so tuned to feeding only on warm blooded animals that they have been known to attempt to bite inanimate objects that were heated to our body temperature.
The insect injects some of its saliva as it begins to bite, and this material acts as both an anesthetic to keep us from feeling the sharp proboscis entering our skin, and as an anticoagulant to keep the blood flowing properly. The insect feeds for several minutes, swelling from a flattened body to a bloated body as it ingests several times its own weight with our blood. The unfortunate part is that, in an effort to make more room in its body for more blood, it also defecates as it feeds, and within this excreted waste material there may be the protozoa that cause Chagas Disease, a micro-organism called Trypanosoma cruzi. As we awaken and feel the sensation of that bite from the now long-gone insect we may have a tendency to scratch at the spot of the bite, pushing some of the fecal matter and the pathogen into our skin and our blood stream, getting the infection started.
Your ability to prevent problems from these insects can begin with ensuring they cannot enter your home, and this is really good advice for preventing just about any other insect or rodent from living with you as well. The same effort you put in to keep Kissing Bugs out will also keep out flies, mosquitoes, and other unwanted visitors. When you inspect your home for unnecessary openings, such as gaps around or under doors or windows, broken screens leading to crawl space or attic, or holes in the outside walls where pipes or wires come into the home, you can permanently fill these with caulking or some other appropriate repair material. Keeping them out is always preferred over trying to kill them once they get inside. If you have wildlife dens nearby these could harbor the insects, and they should be dealt with in the proper manner. If you yourself have things such as poultry houses on your property, they are another potential source of kissing bugs, and an inspection might reveal whether changes are needed.
If you live in an area where kissing bugs are a problem, and suspect that they may be living within your home, an application of a registered pesticide may be appropriate. This is best done by a licensed professional, who has extensive training in the use of such materials as well as in the biology and habits of the insect pests. These are not a serious pest in the United States at this time, but they are common insects, and the potential is there for the meeting between bug and person. Your diligence in keeping them out of the home is your best first step.