'Kissing Bugs' Spread Deadly Parasite in U.S.: How to Avoid Contracting It

woman itching from mosquitosKissing bugs sound SO cute and harmless -- like a small ant, maybe, with an oversized red pout and a need to cuddle. This ain't Disney, folks. The REAL kissing bug -- aka the "assassin bug" -- can make you super-sick with something called Chagas disease. Oh, and BTW? It's sorta spreading across Texas.

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So you know how some mosquitoes can transmit an illness (like malaria) to you through a bite? Well, kissing bugs s**t on you while they're filling up on your blood. 

Which is incredibly rude.

And their feces may be contaminated with a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi. That, you know, then finds a new home in you. And affects your heart and gastrointestinal system.

So that's Chagas disease in a nutshell. And many people go quite a while -- even DECADES -- without even noticing they have it. That's because symptoms like body aches, fever, fatigue, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and vomiting mimic a common flu or virus. They only last a few weeks or months, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

But even after symptoms dissipate, the parasite is, er, worming its way into your heart and intestine. Think: altered heart rate and rhythm, cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart), cardiac arrest, not to mention an enlarged esophagus or colon.

All of which sounds incredibly painful. But which 30 percent of people bitten by a kissing bug develop.

Chagas used to be largely confined to rural parts of Central America, South America, and Mexico. But a new study shows that it's packed its bags and crossed the border into the U.S.

When researchers from the University of Texas El Paso recently trapped and tested 39 bugs about 100 miles north of the U.S.–Mexico border in Hudspeth County, Texas, they found that 24 of them -- that's 61 percent -- were carrying Chagas disease.

Even the researchers were surprised by the high number and think it could explain how common heart disease is in the area.

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So what can YOU do to stay safe? (And keep your pets safe, since they can get Chagas, too.)

For starters, try not to get bitten! Slather on bug spray, turn on the bug zapper, and stay inside at dusk and dawn, as kissing bugs are primarily nocturnal.

Here's what the suckers look like {{{shiver}}}:

kissing bug

Be aware if you develop any of the mild symptoms mentioned above. You can also look for local swelling, called a chagoma, where the parasite entered your body. And some people develop swelling of the eyelid on the side of the face nearest the bite wound. (It means you rubbed infected mosquito s**t into your eye.)

If you think you DO have Chagas, early detection is best. Ask your doctor to give you a blood test, which is how the disease is diagnosed. The good news? It can be treated with antiparasitic medication.

So no need to panic yet. But we'd light those Citronella candles if we were you.

 

Images @ Tharakorn/iStock; gauchocat/Flickr

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