What You Need To Know About Chagas Disease, A Dangerous Infection Caused By ‘Kissing’ Bugs

This is scary—here are the symptoms to watch out for.

A parasite called the “kissing bug” is spreading a dangerous infection that can lead to heart problems in some people who get it.

In August, the American Heart Association released a statement about Chagas disease, which is caused by an infection from a parasite known as Trypanosoma cruzi (T cruzi). About one-third of those infected with Chagas disease go on to develop chronic heart disease.

Chagas disease is spread through the feces of an infected blood-sucking insect known as a triatomine, colloquially called the “kissing bug.” The infection enters a person’s skin through the bite site or in the eyes, nose or mouth. According to the World Health Organization, scratching or itching at the bite site helps the infection get into the bloodstream.

Less commonly, Chagas disease can also spread from mother to fetus, through contaminated food or drink and through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Chagas disease can affect animals as well.

The American Heart Association’s statement noted that while Chagas disease is typically found in Central and South America, it has spread to other parts of the world in recent decades. There are presently an estimated 300,000 infected people in the United States. The disease has been reported in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.

The statement is intended to raise awareness of the disease as well as to provide healthcare providers with critical information to recognize, diagnose and treat Chagas disease and prevent its further spread.


Symptoms Of Chagas Disease

“Early detection of Chagas disease is critical, allowing prompt initiation of therapy when the evidence for cure is strong,” Caryn Bern, M.D., M.P.H., professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California in San Francisco and statement co-author, explained.

Up to 60 percent to 70 percent of infected people never display any symptoms. However, in the acute phase of infection, those who do show symptoms may experiencea red, itchy bump at the bite site, fever, fatigue, body aches, headache and rash. The most recognizable symptom is called Romaña’s sign, which is characterized by swelling of the eyelids near the bite site or where the feces was deposited. Romaña’s sign typically happens up to three weeks after infection.

If left untreated, the infection persists and can become chronic, leading to cardiac problems, including an enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy), heart failure, altered heart rate or rhythm or cardiac arrest. It can also cause intestinal complications, including an enlarged esophagus or colon as well as problems eating and passing stool.

The chronic phase of Chagas disease can occur decades after an infection. About 30 percent of those infected will become chronically ill.

Center For Disease Control Reports Highest Number Of Measles Cases In 20 YearsGetty Images | Joe Raedle

Treating Chagas Disease

If you believe you may have Chagas disease, you should visit a doctor, who can test your blood for the infection. You may also undergo an electrocardiogram (EKG) and other further testing.

Chagas disease is treated with anti-trypanosomal medication called nifurtimox or benznidazole.

A California woman who learned she was infected with Chagas disease after trying to donate blood in January 2017 is now speaking out to warn others about what she calls a “silent killer.” Although Lynn Kaufer Hodson did notice that she had a large bug bite that became increasingly itchy as the weeks went on, she didn’t initially suspect anything was seriously wrong.

“There is no urgency, no concern, no anything with this disease right now,” Hodson told Fox News. “Not many people have it; it’s not a sexy thing. You can’t see it.”

Hodson is now seeing a cardiologist once a year to monitor her heart function.

electrocardiogram photoGetty Images | Joe Raedle


For people traveling to countries where Chagas disease is prevalent, the World Health Organization recommends avoiding unpasteurized sugar cane juice or acai fruit juice. Travelers should also avoid staying in residences with un-plastered adobe walls or thatch roofs.