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Keeping Track of the ‘Kissing Bug’ and Other Dangerous Summer Pests

Posted by Suraj Saggar, DO, Chief, Department of Infectious Disease at Holy Name Medical Center on June 19, 2019

Suraj Saggar, DO, Chief, Department of Infectious Disease at Holy 	Name Medical Center

With a name like the “kissing bug” you’d think this insect isn’t so bad. But don’t let the name fool you. The kissing bug, more formally known as the Triatomine bug, is considered an assassin because it inflicts a painful bite on humans, typically on the face.

The bugs, of which there are several species, can spread the serious Chagas disease. Chagas can cause damage to the central nervous system as well as the heart, including heart failure.


Discovered more than a century ago, kissing bugs are believed to have originated in South America, then made their way into Mexico and the warm, southern portions of the United States. This once tropical pest is again on the move north.

Kissing Bug

Photo: Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Where are they now?

Most recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed a case of Chagas in Delaware. The agency is tracking the bug’s migration, as you can see from the map below.

triatomine bug occurrence by state

Photo: Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

How is Chagas disease treated?

Suraj Saggar, DO, chief of infectious disease at Holy Name Medical Center, has treated patients infected with Chagas disease.

“The patients I’ve seen were infected outside the United States and then traveled to our country,” says Dr. Saggar. As many as 8 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with Chagas disease, according to the CDC.

“And while it’s rare that people in the United States are infected, it’s still something we need to be concerned with and watch closely,” says Dr. Saggar.

In the early phase of Chagas disease, a person may have no symptoms or mild ones, including fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and vomiting. Since the symptoms mimic those of other illnesses, many may not know they have this parasitic infection.

“Which is why we screen for it, because if left untreated it can cause an enlarged heart, colon, and esophagus,” says Dr. Saggar.

Ranging in size up to an inch, kissing bugs often hide in cracks and holes in beds, floors, walls, and furniture. They are most likely to be found near places where a dog or cat spends time. Chagas disease also causes similar health problems in animals.

Treatment focuses on killing the parasite and managing signs and symptoms. During the acute phase of disease, the prescription medications benznidazole and nifurtimox may be beneficial.

The CDC recommends taking the following steps to keeping kissing bugs away from your home:

  • Seal cracks and gaps around windows, walls, roofs, and doors.
  • Keep your house and any outdoor pet resting areas clean, in addition to periodically checking both areas for the presence of bugs.

What about tickborne diseases?

Also on the rise in the Northeast are tickborne illnesses. “Black-legged deer ticks, which are very prevalent in New Jersey, can spread a number of conditions, including Lyme disease, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis,” says Dr. Saggar. “Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is spread by the American dog tick, can also be a concern here.”

Reducing exposure to ticks is the best defense against these tickborne infections:

  • Avoid wooded and brushy areas.
  • Use Environmental Protection Agency-registered insect repellents.
  • Wear high socks when walking or hiking. Ticks tend to attach to the lower legs and crawl up.
  • Do a thorough body check. Ticks like warm, dark places so look behind the knees, ears, and groin area.
  • Check your pets for ticks daily, especially after they spend time outdoors. You might also want to consider treating your pet with one of a variety of products that kill/prevent ticks. Speak to your veterinarian about monthly preventative options as well as having your pet receive a Lyme disease vaccine.

“A tick needs to be attached for a minimum of 24 hours for it to transmit disease,” explains Dr. Saggar. “If you’re out walking in the woods and come home to find a tick on you, remove it right away with tweezers, making sure to pull out the entire body. Then clean the site with rubbing alcohol.”

Keep an eye out for a rash resembling what looks like a bull’s eye, which may be an indication of Lyme disease. If diagnosed in the early stages, Lyme disease can be cured with antibiotics.

Lyme disease occurs in three stages:

  • Stage 1: Early localized, within days or weeks after a tick bite. Lyme bacteria have not spread throughout the body.
  • Stage 2: Early disseminated, within several weeks or months after the tick bite. Bacteria are beginning to spread throughout the body.
  • Stage 3: Late disseminated. If not treated within the first two stages, Lyme bacteria will spread throughout the body. The disease may cause arthritis, heart problems, and even neurological issues.

“It is important to receive a prompt, accurate diagnosis of Lyme and start treatment as soon as possible,” says Dr. Saggar.

Holy Name Medical Center wants you and your loved ones to enjoy a happy, healthy summer. To find a primary care or specialty physician or healthcare provider, visit HolyNameMedicalPartners.org.