The kissing bug gets its name from biting on or near the mouth.
It’s a type of assassin bug that feeds on the blood of mammals, reptiles, and birds.
The bugs can carry and transfer the parasite for Chagas disease.
It’s crucial to catch Chagas before it turns into a chronic, incurable condition.
The kissing bug has a moniker that's just as literal as it sounds. Kissing bugs aren't looking to smooch your face tenderly, though. Instead, they bite it, preferably on or near the mouth. What's more, they can also carry the parasite responsible for Chagas disease, a rare but serious condition. Here's what you need to know about these bugs and how to avoid having them in or near your home.
What Is a Kissing Bug?
The term "kissing bug" is a nickname for the triatomine bug, a submember of the Reduviidae insect family. These bugs are also commonly known as cone-nosed bugs, Chagas bugs, or the apt nickname "bloodsucker." They're typically 1/2- to 1-inch long and light brown to black, with some having tan, red, or yellow markings on their abdomen.
The Reduviidae family of insects are also called assassin bugs since they use a sharp mouthpiece to pierce their prey and inject a paralyzing poison. Don't judge a bug by its cover, though: Many types of assassin bugs are actually beneficial insects for your garden, as they love to dine on aphids, caterpillars, and other crop-destroying bugs. What distinguishes the kissing bug from other assassin bugs is that it feeds on birds, reptiles, and mammals, leaving both humans and pets at risk for an attack.
Where to Find Kissing Bugs
The kissing bug thrives in areas with warmer climates. It’s most often found in the southern U.S. and Mexico, as well as Latin America and South America.
Kissing bugs aren't a common household bug in the U.S. since most homes have solid walls and sealed entryways. However, if they make it inside through cracks, holes, and other structural compromises, you'll likely find them wherever there's a blood host nearby. This includes in and around bedrooms and mattresses and places where pets sleep. You might see them in areas of rodent infestation as well.
When found outdoors, the bugs can hide under porches, in piles of wood or leaves, and in animal enclosures. Again, since they rely on blood to survive, they tend to hang out near humans or animals they can feed on.
Spotting Kissing Bug Bites
The kissing bug bite is painless and often goes unnoticed, especially if the chosen host is asleep. There are no standout characteristics of the bites themselves, other than the fact that they occur in clusters. The insects love to bite around the mouth and eyes, though they can attack anywhere on the body.
While it’s certainly cringe-inducing to picture an insect biting you in the face or mouth, the real danger lies within its potential for carrying disease. Kissing bugs may carry the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which can cause Chagas disease—a rare but serious complication.
However, just getting bitten doesn’t automatically mean you’re infected. An infected bug will often have the live parasite in its fecal matter, and it rudely does its business near the bite wound after it feeds. Should the feces come in contact with the bite wound or your mouth, nose, eyes, or other openings in the skin, the parasite can enter the bloodstream and cause an infection.
Symptoms and Complications From Chagas Disease
Although Chagas disease is not endemic to the U.S., it’s important to be aware of it, particularly if you live in an affected area. Chagas disease symptoms include:
Loss of appetite
Eyelid or facial swelling
The disease has two phases once it enters the body. The acute phase is where the immediate flu-like symptoms appear (although some may be asymptomatic). After the first few weeks, symptoms improve as the disease enters the chronic phase. Don’t let that fool you, though, as the chronic phase is the one to avoid at all costs.
Despite the absence of symptoms, the T. cruzi parasite remains in the body once it enters the chronic phase. It becomes incurable, sometimes causing issues decades—or even years—later. When left untreated, a Chagas infection can lead to potentially life-threatening cardiac or gastrointestinal complications, including:
Irregular heartbeats that can result in sudden death
Enlarged heart (cardiomegaly)
Weakened heart muscle (cardiomyopathy)
Dilation of the colon and esophagus
Once the chronic phase of Chagas disease begins, there's no cure. However, it's avoidable when caught early and treated with antiparasitic medication. If you believe you, a family member, or a pet were bitten, seek medical care immediately.
Avoiding a Kissing Bug Infestation
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there haven't been any specific chemicals approved to treat kissing bugs, and bait traps aren’t effective at controlling them. Generally speaking, the best way to keep out insects or prevent insects in your home is through preventive measures. Along with getting a routine service from a top-rated exterminator near you, it’s important to:
Seal gaps and cracks around doors, windows, walls, and roofs.
Remove piles of brush, wood, and rock near your home.
Keep screens on doors and windows intact.
Cover holes and cracks that lead to your attic or crawl space.
Check periodically for bugs around your home and outdoor space.
If you see one of these insects in or near your home, avoid the urge to squish it. Instead, capture it in a container and bring it to your local university lab, extension office, or health department for identification.
Upon a positive ID, it’s paramount to contact a local emergency pest control company rather than risking a DIY approach. Pros know how to get rid of kissing bugs safely and effectively, using bed nets treated with a long-lasting insecticide to eradicate them for good.