FAQ — You ask, we answer

We have gotten a LOT of questions over the past several years. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions and answers.

See this Chagas disease overview produced by the Texas Chagas Task Force — a CDC-funded collaboration led by UT Health School of Public Health with contributions from Texas A&M AgriLife and medical, veterinary, and entomology professionals across the state.

What are kissing bugs?

Kissing bugs are insects that may be infected with Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease. People also call them cone-nose bugs or chinches. Kissing bugs feed on blood from people and other animals. Kissing bugs are mostly active during the night. They are called kissing bugs because people used to think that they mostly bite around the mouth or eyes — like a kiss! Kissing bugs do not just bite on the face; they can bite anywhere on the body that they can access.

What do kissing bugs in the United States look like?

Adult kissing bugs are about 1/2 to 1 inch long from the end of their 'nose' to the end of their body. Most kinds of kissing bugs have a band around the edge of the body that is striped with orange or red markings. One kind of kissing bug (Triatoma protracta) found in the southwestern United States may or may not have a single, light-brown band around the outer edge of the body.

The legs of kissing bugs are all thin and long, and there are no thicker areas on the legs like some other bugs have. Kissing bugs have straight mouthparts that are usually tucked under their body.

There are 11 different kinds of kissing bugs in United States. The most common kinds in the south-central United States are Triatoma sanguisuga and Triatoma gerstaeckeri, which are each about 1 inch long. Triatoma sanguisuga is also called the 'eastern cone-nose bug', and it has dark red stripes. Triatoma gerstaeckeri is common in Texas, and it has yellow-orange stripes.

Kissing bugs are members of the insect family called Reduviidae. This means they are related to other kinds of reduviids. Some reduviids are called 'assassin bugs' because they eat other insects. Kissing bugs are different than assassin bugs. Some reduviids suck the juice out of plants. Many reduviids have strong, thick mouthparts that they use to bite the insects they are eating or to poke through the strong wall of a plant stem. Because other reduviids have strong mouthparts, they can cause a very painful bite on people and animals. Kissing bugs do not have thick mouthparts, and kissing bug bites do not usually hurt the person while they are feeding. Only kissing bugs are known to pass the Chagas parasite. Check out the 'non-kissing bug' section to see examples of other reduviids.

Kissing bugs hatch from small, light-colored, oval-shaped eggs. Kissing bugs go through five juvenile (nymph) stages before they become adults. Nymphs do not have wings. Only adult kissing bugs have wings and can fly. All kissing bugs feed on blood throughout their life. Kissing bugs can feed on people, dogs, and wild animals. They feed many times over their lives. When kissing bugs feed, they can take several minutes to take a full meal. But kissing bugs do NOT attach like ticks.

Where are kissing bugs found?

Kissing bugs are found throughout the Americas. In the United States, kissing bugs are found in 29 states. Eleven different kinds of kissing bugs are in the United States. Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona are the states with the most different species and most findings of kissing bugs. In some states, kissing bugs have only been found a few times and are probably rare. Those states are Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Kissing bugs are not new to the United States. Kissing bugs have been found in many states in the United States since as early as the mid-1800s.

What percent of kissing bugs carry the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi?

The Chagas parasite Trypanosoma cruzi can live in the guts of the kissing bug. Our laboratory at Texas A&M University has found that about 50% of kissing bugs are infected with the Chagas parasite.

The number of infected kissing bugs varies from location to location. Our research has found different kinds to be infected between 10-70%.

What should I do if I found a kissing bug?

Do not touch a kissing bug with your bare hands! The T. cruzi parasite may be in the feces of kissing bugs, and their bodies may have the parasite on them. Use a glove or small plastic bag to catch the bug so you do not touch the bug directly. Keep the bug in a closed plastic bag, a vial, or other small container. Consider using a bleach solution to clean the surfaces where the bug was found. The bug can be put in a freezer for a few hours to kill it. This will also preserve the DNA for our testing.

When you find a kissing bug, write down the date, time of day you found it, where it was caught (indoors or outdoors), and any possible bites on people or animals. If you are in Texas, you can submit kissing bugs that bit a person to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Our lab at Texas A&M University is a research lab, and we mostly test kissing bugs that are NOT associated with bites. To send us a photo and information, fill out this form.

How can humans and animals acquire Chagas disease?

The Chagas parasite can be in the feces of the kissing bug. The Chagas parasite is not passed when the kissing bug is biting, but can enter through the bite wound. Kissing bugs can pass the parasite to hosts by biting and then pooping near the site of the bite. The parasite then can move from the kissing bug feces into the bite wound. Kissing bugs can enter houses, hunting cabins, dog kennels, or other areas where they look for people and animals to bite and feed on blood. Dogs can become infected by eating kissing bugs. The Chagas parasite can be passed from mother to child, through blood transfusion, and through organ transplantation.

What does a kissing bug bite feel like?

Kissing bugs need to eat blood their whole lives. Their bites are usually not painful or noticed. This allows them to feed throughout their lives without being detected. The mouthpart of a kissing bug is very thin, like a tiny needle. Most people report that kissing bug bites do not hurt.

What does a reaction to a kissing bug bite look like?

There is no 'typical' reaction to a kissing bug bite. Like mosquito bites, some people have almost no reaction and other people have severe reactions. It is not usually possible to tell what bit you if you are only looking at the bite. Reactions to kissing bug bites vary from unnoticeable to anaphylactic shock.

Severe reactions like anaphylactic shock seem to be more common in the southwestern United States. The common kissing bug in Arizona and California (Triatoma protracta) may be more likely to cause a severe reaction. If you are worried about any kind of bite, you should talk with a doctor or healthcare provider. Professionals who need more information about Chagas disease in humans can contact their state health department or the Centers for Disease Control.

What should I do if I think I have been bitten by a kissing bug?

If you are worried about any kind of bite, you should talk with a doctor or healthcare provider. Professionals who need more information about Chagas disease in humans can contact their state health department or the Centers for Disease Control.

If you have the bug that bit you, you can send us a photo. We can usually identify the kind of bug from a photo. Your healthcare provider can find out more from your local or state health department. Texas residents who find bugs in bedrooms or bugs that may have bitten someone can send the bug to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Can other animals become infected with Trypanosoma cruzi?

Kissing bugs feed on blood of many kinds of animals. Some animals can be infected with the Chagas parasite. The Chagas parasite has been found in woodrats, raccoons, coyotes, pet dogs, and many other animals. Wild animals infected with the parasite can pass the parasite to kissing bugs when kissing bugs feed. Then kissing bugs are infected and can pass the parasite to humans and other animals.

What is Chagas disease?

The parasite Trypanosoma cruzi causes Chagas disease in humans, dogs, and other mammals.

Blood cells with

(Photo: Center for Disease Control)

T. cruzi trypomastigote in a thin blood smear stained with Giemsa.

Chagas disease has two stages; the first stage is called the 'acute phase' and the second stage is called the 'chronic phase'. After the T. cruzi parasite enters the body, the acute phase can last for a few weeks or months. During the acute phase, some people experience symptoms like fever, tiredness, body aches, headache, rash, diarrhea, loss of appetite, or vomiting. Some people do not notice any symptoms during the acute phase. This can make it difficult to diagnose for Chagas disease.

After the T. cruzi parasite enters the body, about 1 out of 3 people develop the chronic phase of Chagas disease. The chronic phase can take many years to develop — some people have the chronic phase decades after the parasite enters their body. In the chronic phase, people may experience heart problems or other symptoms.

If you are concerned about Chagas disease, talk with your doctor. There are Chagas disease tests and treatments available. Doctors can work with the CDC to learn more about treatment options for a person with Chagas disease. There are currently no vaccines to protect people from Chagas disease.

How does the kissing bug spread the parasite that causes Chagas disease?

The parasite is in the feces of the kissing bug. The parasite is NOT in the saliva or bite of the kissing bug. If kissing bug feces enters someone's body, the parasite can infect the person and cause Chagas disease. Some kinds of kissing bugs poop while they are feeding; if a person scratches the kissing bug feces into the bite then the person can get sick. The parasite can also enter the body through the mouth or eye if someone touches their mouth or eye with a dirty hand. Dogs can become infected by eating kissing bugs.

Where is Chagas disease found?

People who live or lived in parts of Central America and South America are at higher risk of having Chagas disease. In the United States, Chagas disease risk is higher in southern states (where there are more kissing bugs) than in northern states.

No one knows exactly how many people in the United States have Chagas disease. Scientists think that in the United States there are at least 300,000 cases of Chagas disease in people, and there may be more than 1 million cases. Most states are not required to keep track of the number of people with Chagas disease. Doctors are starting to count the number of people with Chagas disease in Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Utah, and Los Angeles County.

The Chagas parasite was first discovered in Brazil in 1909 (the link takes you to the scientist's paper that is written in Portugese). The scientist who discovered was Dr. Carlos Chagas, and so the disease has become known as Chagas disease. After the parasite was discovered in 1909, scientists in other parts of the world started to look for the parasite. The Chagas parasite was first found in the United States in 1916 in California. Mummy research in Texas suggests the Chagas parasite may have infected people in Texas over 1,000 years ago! The Chagas parasite is definitely not new to the United States.

How does Chagas disease affect dogs?

In dogs, infection with the Chagas parasite can cause heart disease. But many infected dogs may be asymptomatic (not appear sick). A dog’s daily stress and activity level along with age may affect how sick a dogs gets from Chagas disease. Different kinds of the Chagas parasite can also affect how sick a dog gets. Some common signs of illness in dogs are heart problems, bloat, and sometimes sudden death.

A dog can be tested for Chagas disease by testing a sample of blood using an indirect fluorescent antibody (IFA) test. The IFA tests to see if a dog has antibodies for the T. cruzi parasite. A positive result means the dog is or was infected with the parasite. The IFA test for dogs is available through the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory. Many dogs with a positive test result may have no signs of illness. Talk with your veterinarian to learn more about the test and what a positive test means for your dog.

For dogs, there are not many Chagas disease treatments. Scientists and veterinarians are working on new treatments for Chagas disease in dogs. There is no vaccination that protects against Chagas disease.

Why are dogs at risk of being infected?

Dog kennels in Texas and other southern states may have problems with kissing bugs. Kissing bugs can be attracted to the heat and smells of areas with lots of dogs. Some dogs might eat kissing bugs in kennels. Keeping kissing bugs away can be difficult in kennels, especially where kennels are surrounded by natural areas with lots of wild animals.

How can I control kissing bugs around my property?

There are steps you can take to lower the chance of Chagas disease affecting your family and animals. These steps are:

  • 'Tighten up' your house to keep kissing bugs from sneaking in. Plug any gaps around doors and baseboards, and fix any holes in window screens. Don't leave door open without screens.
  • Keep the area under and around your house neat. Remove wild animal nests, piles of branches and wood, and trash so that wild animals stay away from your house. Wild animals can carry the parasite and also be blood sources for kissing bugs.
  • Turn off outside lights at night if safe. Kissing bugs might fly towards lights and then crawl into a house. Keeping the lights off can keep the kissing bugs from coming near.
  • Work with an extension agent or a pest control company to discuss integrated pest management (IPM) strategies. Information about pesticide options can be found in the Texas A&M's extension entomologist post HERE. If you use pesticides, be sure to read the label and apply only as the label says.

How can ask more questions about kissing bugs?

Fill out this form or email us at KissingBug[at]cvm.tamu.edu.

We do our best to reply quickly, but our response time varies according to laboratory and field activities We appreciate your patience.

What does a kissing bug bite look like?

It is not usually possible to tell what kind of insect or other pest bit you if you look at the bite. If you have a bite you are worried about, you should contact your healthcare provider.

Funded under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012345 with the University of North Texas Health Science Center - Gibson D. Lewis Library, and awarded by the DHHS, NIH, National Library of Medicine. Funded in part by Texas Ecological Laboratory program.

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