Triatomine bugs or "kissing bugs" are inch-long bugs or insects that might be infected with a protozoan parasite namely Trypanosoma Cruzi. When these infected bugs bite humans, they transmit the infection and humans get infected with the Chagas disease.

When a bug bites an infected person, it becomes a carrier of the parasite T. cruzi and it gets passed on to its feces. When the same bug bites another person and its feces come in contact with the bitten person, it enters the person through their eyes or nose or mouth, or through the bite itself.

The disease apparently infects about 8 million people and predominantly those in Latin America.

Triatomine bugs are called as "kissing bugs," because they prefer to bite humans around the mouth or eyes as they feed on blood during nighttime. After the skin gets affected, other body tissues can eventually get infected and inflamed, especially those tissues of the heart and intestinal tracts.

Although the disease is transmitted from the bugs, it is not contagious and fortunately cannot transmit from one person to another like flu.

There are three phases to this disease — the acute phase followed by the intermediate or indeterminate phase and lastly the serious state, chronic phase.

Some of the prominent symptoms of the acute-phase of the Chagas disease include swelling and redness of skin (chagomas), rashes, fever, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, body aches, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, diarrhea, liver or spleen enlargement, and the Romaña sign. 

The more serious chronic-phase of the disease include symptoms such as palpitations, difficulty swallowing, irregular heartbeats, fainting, congestive heart failure, cardiomyopathy, shortness of breath, EKG changes, emphysema, severe abdominal pain, stroke, severe constipation, dilated colon and sudden death.

Diagnosis of the Chagas disease involves a physical exam, direct microscopic examination of the parasites, identifying the antibodies against the parasites and a study of the history of the patient. The treatment can be carried out with prescription of anti-parasitic drugs such as benznidazole (Rochagan, Ragonil) and nifurtimox (Lampit).

Although people predominantly get directly infected from the parasite-carrying triatomine bugs, the parasite can be passed on through other ways too. For example, the parasite T.cruzi can be transferred from an infected person through a blood transfusion or transplantation of infected organs.

Uncooked food or undercooked meat can be contaminated with the parasite and on eating it, it can be transmitted. An infected pregnant mother can also transfer the Chagas disease to her unborn baby.

Photo: Glenn Seplak | Flickr

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