Lately, several news outlets have reported on the discovery of “deadly” kissing bugs in some southeastern states. These reports indicate that a blood sucking, disease spreading insect known as the kissing bug “have been reported in 28 states, with the largest concentration in the south.” In reality, kissing bugs are native to these states and show up in records as far back as the early 1900s. So why is the media now throwing kissing bugs into the spotlight? Perhaps to show some love for this kissing creature, but with this (not so) “deadly” bug, there is no need to panic. As with any pest, it’s best to know the facts.
What are kissing bugs?
Kissing bugs are true bugs in the family Reduviidae and the genus Triatoma. These insects can be infected with a parasite (Trypanosoma curzi) that causes Chagas disease. The adults and nymphs feed on blood mostly from small mammals and birds, but sometimes on people as well. They are called kissing bugs because when they feed on humans they prefer to feed around the mouth or eyes.
What do they look like?
There are different species so their size and color can vary, but the most common ones have a characteristic band around the edge of the body that is striped with orange or red markings. The legs are long and thin and do not have broadened areas or spines on them. Their mouthparts appear as a large extension on the head and because of this they are sometimes referred to as cone-nosed bugs. Adults range in size from ¾ inch to 1 and ¼ inches long.
What are some insects mistaken for kissing bugs?
Considerably larger in size
A cog-like wheel structure on its back
Grey color and with no red or orange spots
Considerably larger in size
Broadened leaf-like areas on the hind legs
Grey or brown color with no red or orange spots
Smaller in size
Usually found in clusters
No red or orange spots on the edges of the body
Vary in size and color
No pronounced cone-nose appearance
Typically without the red or orange spots on the edges of the body
Where are kissing bugs found?
There are 11 different species documented in 28 states in the U.S., with Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona having the highest density.
Are they really a problem in the southeast? Are they really deadly?
Kissing bugs live in the southeastern states but they are not commonly seen. They rarely get into houses and bites are not common. Kissing bugs can carry a parasite that causes Chagas disease, and while the CDC estimates more than 300,000 in the U.S. are affected with Chagas disease, most of these people acquired infections when visiting other countries. The chances of getting Chagas disease from a kissing bug in the southeast are very slim.
What is Chagas disease?
Chagas disease is named after the Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, who discovered the disease in 1909. Symptoms of the disease include fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, a rash where the parasite entered the body, and swelling around the eyelids. This is the acute phase of the disease, which can be difficult to diagnose because these symptoms occur with many types of illnesses. Of those infected, about 30% are at risk to developing chronic Chagas disease. This includes mild to severe cardiac and intestinal complications, which may not show up until decades after the initial infection. Treatment of Chagas disease can be difficult, and drugs are available through the CDC after consultation with a physician.
Do the bites from a kissing bug hurt?
Bites from kissing bugs are painless and most people do not develop reactions to them. Some people can have allergic reactions to the saliva of the kissing bug when it is injected.
What can I do to prevent getting kissing bugs?
The best way to keep kissing bugs out of your home is through exclusion. Seal all cracks inside and outside the house. Replace worn weather-stripping and make sure screens on windows and doors are tight fitting and in good condition. They are attracted to lights so make sure all unnecessary lights are turned off at night. Also, remove any wildlife nesting areas around the outside of the house.
What if I find a kissing bug?
There are several insects that can be mistaken for kissing bugs including wheel bugs, assassin bugs, and leaf-footed bugs. If you think you may have found a kissing bug, capture it in container or take a clear picture and take it to your trusted Terminix professional or local extension office to verify the identification.
By Dan Heims, president, Terra Nova Nurseries, Inc.
Photographs courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries, Inc.
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