“Assassin bugs” is a common name given to Hemiptera insects in the Reduviidae family, and despite their intimidating common name, these bugs are generally beneficial due to their habit of preying on urban and agricultural insect pests. However, many insect species in the Triatominae subfamily of Reduviidae are not beneficial and are actually vectors of disease. These Triatomine insect pests are commonly known as “kissing bugs,” and according to the World Health Organization, six to seven million people worldwide, most of whom live in Latin America, have contracted disease from these insect pests.
Kissing bugs get their common name from their habit of biting people’s faces, often on or near the lips due to the bug’s attraction to the carbon dioxide people exhale. After inflicting several bites to collect their needed blood meals, these pests typically defecate on human skin at least once. Unfortunately, the feces of many kissing bug specimens contain a parasite known as Trypanosoma cruzi. In response to irritating compounds in kissing bug saliva, bite victims cannot help but to itch the affected area of skin, and by doing so they smear the fecal matter into the bite wound where the parasite enters the bloodstream, resulting in T. cruzi infection, or “chagas disease.”
Historically, kissing bugs have only spread chagas disease to people living in Latin America, despite the fact that several chagas-spreading kissing bug species are abundant in the southern half of the US. Kissing bugs very rarely transmit chagas disease within the US, presumably because very few T. cruzi reservoirs exist in the country. However, entomologists are now finding that more than half of all specimens in certain urban kissing bug populations in the south carry the T. cruzi parasite. In response to these findings, public health officials in the US have categorized kissing bugs as an emerging public health threat, and not just because of their growing potential as disease vectors in the country.
In recent years, doctors in the southwest US have been treating an increasing number of patients for serious and potentially fatal allergic reactions to kissing bug bites, including anaphylactic shock. Due to the lack of literature on the medical problems associated with kissing bug bites in the US, these doctors were initially perplexed by the odd symptoms exhibited by their patients. It is now understood that kissing bugs may be responsible for the highest proportion of insect-related anaphylaxis cases in the US. This is tremendously worrying, as most people sustain kissing bug bites in their home while sleeping, which makes the possibility of securing timely and life-saving treatment for anaphylaxis unlikely.
Have you ever found what you believe was one or more kissing bugs within your home?