The ‘kiss’ from this bug could break your heart

This image shows various triatomine bugs, also known as “kissing bugs,” in all life stages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This image shows various triatomine bugs, also known as “kissing bugs,” in all life stages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The kissing bug may sound like a virus that plagues the protagonist of a romantic comedy, but in fact, the insects are real and they exist in Kentucky.

These blood-feeding insects that prefer to bite humans around the mouth or eyes have received recent media attention due to the potential health effects of their bites, particularly in the southwestern United States. One species of the bugs can be found in Kentucky, but the danger of contracting chronic illness is less than in other areas, according to University of Kentucky extension entomologist Lee Townsend.

“A species of kissing bug lives in Kentucky, but the insect is not commonly seen. It occurs in wooded areas where it lives in the dens of various animals,” Townsend, a faculty member in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, said in a news release. “At UK, we have only occasionally received adults that were captured from inside homes, usually near or in wooded areas. Few bites have been reported. Kissing bugs will fly to outdoor lights, especially in the fall, and some will find ways inside.”

Adult kissing bugs range in length from between three-quarters of an inch to 1.25 inches. Most have a striped band with red or orange markings around their bodies. Their mouth parts look like a large black extension jutting out from their head. They are most active at night and feed on a variety of animals and humans, similar to bedbugs.

Infected bugs can leave behind a parasite when they bite, leading to Chagas disease that can cause severe and chronic heart and intestinal problems, including heart failure and enlarged colons. Chagas disease is found mostly in the kissing bug species in Latin America.

According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease is extremely rare in the species that is in Kentucky and throughout much of the United States.

“The feeding habits of the species we have here do not make it a very effective vector, even if it is carrying the pathogen,” Townsend said. “While the insects are called deadly, bites from bugs not infected with the pathogen are similar to a bad mosquito bite, tending to swell, itch and then improve.”

Those who think they have found a kissing bug should send a sample to their local office of the UK Cooperative Extension Service for identification before beginning any control steps. The bugs closely resemble other insects commonly found near homes.

Kentuckians can protect themselves from the kissing bug the same way they would many other insects: by making sure cracks and crevices around their home are sealed, removing wood piles around the home, and turning off outside lights when not needed.