Kissing Bug
Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Entomology

Nebraska researchers found kissing bugs in Richardson County last summer, and want residents to be aware of the health risks they pose. 

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Insect Diagnostician Kyle Koch said if the bugs exist outside of Richardson County, they are likely uncommon. He said if the bugs spread into other areas of Nebraska, it will likely be a slow and limited process.

“There’s no evidence to really suggest that it’s necessarily new here, it’s probably been in very southeastern Nebraska for a while but went sort of undetected for quite a while,” he said. “As you go further north, you get these more presumably isolated populations that aren’t as large and so easier to go undetected.”

According to Koch, most species of kissing bugs are found in the southern portion U.S., but a few of them, including the one that was recently documented in Nebraska, have a broader distribution. That species, Triatoma sanguisuga, is found through much of the eastern U.S. 

Kissing bugs get their name because they are attracted to carbon dioxide and heat and tend to bite around the host’s mouth.

Bites from a kissing bug typically elicit little to no reaction and can be compared to the bite one would get from a mosquito. However, a protozoan parasite known as Trypanosoma cruzi lives in the gut of kissing bugs and can be spread to humans through the bug’s feces.

Chagas disease has two stages, acute and chronic. According to the CDC, the acute stage can last for weeks or months. There are often little to no symptoms at this stage, but fevers can occur. There may also be swelling around the area the parasite entered the body.

“The chronic stage can be sort of asymptomatic, but, in about 30% of individuals with Chagas disease, it can pose more serious issues, such as heart failure,” Koch said.

According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of the chronic stage may not show up for 10 to 20 years after infection.

“The risk for transmission is when a kissing bug takes a blood meal from its host and defecates on the host,” Koch said. “In the case of a person, for example, we wake up and we have an irritation there because we were bit around our mouth and we rub or itch it, then we spread that feces either into the wound where we have been bit or into the eye or something like that.”

Since the parasite is spread through the bug’s feces and the bugs often do not defecate on the host, transmission rates are low. 

The CDC estimates there are approximately 300,000 people with Chagas disease in the United States, but most transmissions occured when people from the U.S. were visiting South America. Within the past 20 years, there have been fewer than 100 documented cases of Chagas disease in which transmission occurred in the U.S.

“Our homes are pretty sound here in the U.S.,” Koch said. “We have screens on windows and things are sealed up pretty well. So, we don’t see as many kissing bugs coming into homes as you might get in endemic regions in Central and South America.”

Koch recommends taking precautionary measures that include making sure your home is sealed, fixing any holes in windows, not leaving any doors that do not have screens open. Kissing bugs commonly get in homes by following an animal host, so Koch also suggests removing any wild animal messes, piles of wood and any other trash or debris that may attract wild animals or rodents around the house.

Koch said kissing bugs are also highly attracted to light, so turning off lights that are attached to homes can help reduce the risk of exposure.

Kissing bugs have black bodies with striking orange bands along the abdomen. Koch said that anyone who sees a kissing bug in their home or believes they have been bitten by one should contact the Department of Health and Human Services and then get in touch with their doctor.

“I hope people are aware of the presence of this insect in Nebraska, but certainly not to panic,” he said. “Understand that the transmission risk of Chagas is very low, but something that they should be aware of.”