The bug is native to the southern United States, South America, Central America and Mexico, and can carry a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi that causes the potentially deadly Chagas disease.
Chagas disease, also known as American trypanosomiasis, often doesn’t have overt symptoms. Less than half of those infected or bitten by a triatomine bug will see a visible skin lesion or a swelling in one of their eyelids. According to the World Health Organization, in the first months after infection Chagas sufferers can experience “fever, headache, enlarged lymph glands, pallor, muscle pain, difficulty in breathing, swelling and abdominal or chest pain.”
If left untreated, the disease gets worse and enters what doctors call the chronic phase. Over time the parasites nestle into the heart and digestive muscles of their hosts. They can cause heart and digestive disorders and discomfort before ultimately causing sudden death or heart failure.
Chagas is typically spread when humans come in contact with the feces of infected Triatomine bugs. Chagas can also be spread through blood transfusions or organ transplants from infected donors or from mother to child during pregnancy.
There are as many as 300,000 Americans living with Chagas disease and approximately 8 million people living with the disease in Central and South America. Many carriers do not know they are infected with the tropical parasitic illness.
Triatomine bugs live in cracks and holes in outdoor spaces, so the CDC recommends sealing up any gaps that lead outdoors, especially around windows, walls, roofs and doors. Keeping pets indoors at night and making sure outdoor lights that can attract bugs are a good distance away from the house also helps with prevention.
It’s important to note that most people in the United States with Chagas disease contracted the disease in Central or South America. Very few of the 300,000 people living with the disease in the U.S. were infected here.
If you find a Triatomine bug, don’t try to touch or squash it. Instead try to seal it in a container and either freeze it or fill the container with rubbing alcohol. Then take it your local health department for species identification.
You can also contact the CDC’s Division of Parasitic Diseases and Malaria at email@example.com for identification and testing.