Just how deadly is the kissing bug?

Story highlights

  • Kissing bugs found in 28 states
  • Parasite carried in the kissing bugs' dung can cause Chagas disease

(CNN)Deadly kissing bugs. You may have seen them popping up recently in your Facebook feed -- similar in appearance to a cockroach -- as reports are shared about the insects possibly invading a state near you. But, just how deadly are they? Turns out, not so much.

Sarah Hamer is an assistant professor of epidemiology at Texas A&M's veterinary and biomedical school. She's leading the team at Texas A&M investigating these media-friendly bugs, and says, "It's great we are heightening our awareness -- but we don't need to be terribly scared."

Nocturnal nuisance

The nocturnal, inch-long triatomine bug has been nicknamed the kissing bug because it feeds on mammals' blood, and particularly likes to bite around the lips and faces of people when they are sleeping. These bites can turn deadly, when bugs infected with the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi defecate and the fecal matter infects the bite. The infection is known as Chagas disease.
Hamer explained that this perfect storm of events is pretty rare. "The bug has to be there, blood feed, and the parasite needs to be rubbed in, and that's a lot to have to happen...it's more rare for kissing bugs to feed on people than mosquitos to feed on people."

Infection rare

In fact, studies have found that there is only about one case of Chagas, for every 900-4,000 contacts with infected kissing bugs.
Kissing bugs are most active in the summer through early fall.
Most people who are infected only experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue, body aches, vomiting and loss of appetite. But between 20% and 30% of those infected result in chronic conditions that aren't detected until later in life such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, tiredness, and in rare cases, sudden death.
Chagas can also infect dogs. Hamer's group is tracking the disease both in humans and canines.

Disease coming north

Chagas is endemic to Latin America, where a different species of kissing bugs live and can find their way into rural households. "They might have thatched roof, or poorly insulated walls, and the bugs set up shop and feed on animals and people at home," Hamer said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 8 million cases of the disease throughout Latin and South America.
The bugs in the United States are most likely to be found outside. The CDC estimates there are about 300,000 cases of Chagas in the United States, with most of those cases contracted in other countries.
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However that doesn't mean that kissing bugs don't exist here in the U.S. They have been reported in 28 states, with the largest concentration in the south. Hamer's team collects kissing bugs from the public, and have found over 50% of the bugs to be infected with the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi.
Hamer said the kissing bug and Chagas have long been our neighbors. "The earliest reports are from the 1800s. The first parasites have been reported since the 1940s. We're just diagnosing more disease, we're paying attention to it now."

Preventing pests

To prevent infestation, the CDC recommends that you:
  • Seal cracks and gaps around windows, walls, roofs and doors
  • Remove wood, brush and rock piles near your house
  • Use screens on doors and windows and repair any holes or tears
  • Seal holes and cracks leading to the attic, crawl spaces below the house, and to the outside
  • Have pets sleep indoors, especially at night
  • Keep your house and any outdoor pet resting areas clean, in addition to periodically checking both areas for the presence of bugs
If you suspect you've found a kissing bug, the CDC says don't squash it. Instead, place it in a container and fill with rubbing alcohol or freeze in water and take to your health department.