Unwelcomed advances from “kissing bugs” in Colorado

By Amber McIver-Traywick

The Surveyor

Although they aren’t new to Colorado, Triatoma protracta, one of 11 species of insects commonly called “kissing bugs” are making headlines, along with their insect relatives, as they all can carry a potentially deadly parasite increasingly found in the United States. The parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi, is transmitted by the kissing bug and results in Chagas disease or American trypanosomiasis, and health officials in Colorado want residents to be on the lookout for the infection-spreading pest.

Triatoma protracta, the “kissing bug” found in Colorado.

Kissing bugs generally like to live near rocks, wood or brush piles or under bark. They are often found near rodent nests or other animal burrows, including outdoor pet kennels, as they prefer being close to a food source. The bugs are primarily nocturnal pests that hide during daylight hours and feed on the blood of animals, and humans, during the nighttime hours. The bug injects an anesthetizing agent in their saliva, similar to bed bugs, so the host is unaware they are being bitten, and will feed on its host for around 20-30 minutes.

The bugs have a tendency to bite the face of their host, which resulted in them being dubbed “kissing bugs.” Unfortunately, it’s not the saliva or the bite itself that transmits the disease. After the bugs feed they defecate on their host, and it’s the feces, which contains the parasite that enters the bloodstream through the bite wound or from being rubbed by the host into the mouth, eyes or nose.

The good news for Colorado residents is the species of kissing bug found in Colorado isn’t particularly good at spreading the parasite. According to Colorado.gov website, the Triatoma protracta doesn’t tend to defecate immediately following feedings like its southern cousins do, meaning although they do carry the parasite it is somewhat less likely to spread the disease.

After a bite, some people will experience a mild allergic reaction to the bite itself with mild swelling and itching, but most won’t. According to the World Health Organization during the initial phase of Chagas disease, which lasts for the first few weeks or months after infection, a person may have no symptoms, or mild one;, such as fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea and vomiting. Because these symptoms are similar to those of other illnesses, most people do not know their illness is from infection with the T. cruzi parasite. However, a doctor may be able to pick up other signs of infection, including mild enlargement of the liver or spleen, swollen glands, or swelling at the site of the bite (called a chagoma), where the parasite entered the body.

Chagas is curable if treated relatively soon after the onset of the infection with antiparasitic medications. If left untreated, the parasitic infection can lead to chronic disease with severe and life-threatening manifestations like enlarged heart, heart failure, arrhythmias, or gastrointestinal complications such as an enlarged esophagus or colon.

Named after the Brazilian doctor Carlos Chagas, who discovered the disease in 1909, Chagas is an illness the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates has afflicted around eight million people where it originated in Mexico and Central and South America. The CDC believes as of 2016 there were around 240,000 persons living in the United States infected with the T cruzi parasite. This estimate does not include undocumented immigrants, who the CDC believes could account for more than 100,000 more cases.

Pets can also be infected with Chagas by being bitten by the kissing bug, eating the insect or through contact with other infected animals. Most infected dogs demonstrate subtle signs, such as lethargy, decreased appetite, and weight loss. In more severe cases, you may also notice more severe signs, such as fainting, exercise intolerance, vomiting and diarrhea. On examination your veterinarian may observe signs of heart failure, fluid in the abdomen, and lymph-node enlargement.

Like any other pests you would want to keep out of your home, following simple precautions suggested by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) can help keep kissing bugs from finding their way inside your house. Make sure all cracks and gaps around windows, walls, roofs and doors, as well as attics and crawl spaces, are properly sealed. Remove wood, brush and rock piles near your home. Use screens on doors and windows and make sure to repair any holes or tears. If it’s possible, make sure yard lights are not close to your house, as lights attract bugs. Have pets sleep inside, especially during the night. Keep your house and outdoor pet resting areas clean, in addition to periodically checking all areas for the insect’s presence, can also help keep everyone safe.

The CDPHE is trying to track kissing bugs across the state and is asking residents that if they do come across one to send it in to be tested. If you find a bug you suspect is a triatomine “kissing bug,” do not touch or squash it. Place a container on top of the bug, slide the bug inside, and fill it with rubbing alcohol or, if not available, freeze the bug in the container. Surfaces that have come into contact with the bug should be cleaned with a solution made of one part bleach to nine parts water (or seven parts ethanol to three parts water). More information about the bugs and Chagas as well as details on how to submit a specimen can be found by visiting colorado.gov/pacific/cdphe/Chagas.

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