Deadly "Kissing Bug" Has Infiltrated Florida

One variety of the "Kissing Bug."
One variety of the "Kissing Bug."
Photo by Glenn Seplak's Flickr | CC2.0

To quote our favorite Christmas movie Batman Returns, mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it, but a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it. Especially if that kiss is from an invasive insect known as the kissing bug. The Center for Disease Control reports that the insect, native to South and Central America, has been spotted in several southern states including Florida. 

Though not every single bug is affected, many carry a parasitic disease known as Chagas disease, which, in its most severe form, can lead to heart failure later in life. 

Scientifically known as the triatomine, the kissing bug has been spotted in 27 states now in addition to Florida. It acquired its nickname because it usually bites humans around the lips or eyes. Fortunately, transmitting Chagas from bug to human isn't easy, but when it happens the resulting complications can be brutal. Initial symptoms include swelling at the bite site, fever, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes and can last for eight to 12 weeks. After that, about 60 to 70 percents of patients never experience further symptoms. However, for the rest the disease may cause complications 10 to 30 years on. It can cause enlargement of the esophagus, colon, and ventricles of the heart, which can lead to heart failure. 

Luckily, the disease is usually curable if caught in the early stages. Though, medication is successful in delaying onset of potentially deadly symptoms once the disease reaches the chronic state. Anyone who thinks they may be infected is asked to go to their health care provider. 

The bugs are about an inch long, and look, in our estimation, like the result of a wild night between a palmetto bug and a large, angry ant. 

If you're not used to seeing bugs in your home, because you've already made sure all entryways are sealed off, you're probably safe. To prevent infestation, the CDC recommends sealing cracks and gaps around windows, walls, roofs, and doors. Patching all holes in screeners and window screens and keeping them closed also helps. The bugs also like to sleep near your pets, so keeping the dog or cat in at night and making sure its resting place is clean is also key. 

If you happen to find a kissing bug, the CDC advises that you don't crush it but rather capture it in a container. Then either fill the container with rubbing alcohol (the best option) or freeze it. Then take the bug to the local health department, a university laboratory for species identification, or contact the CDC directly at parasites@cdc.gov. Any extra bug parts or fecal material should also be bagged and brought in for testing. Any surfaces that came in contact with the bug should be scrubbed with one part bleach to nine parts water.

Though repots of the disease have been popping up now in other states, so far none have emerged in Florida. 

As many as 8 million people have the disease throughout Mexico, Central, and South America, and an estimated 12,500 people die from the disease each year.


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