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The 'kissing bug' in Colorado: Why they’re causing a stir, where to find them and the real risk

Posted at 1:49 PM, Apr 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-26 10:38:38-04

What’s the deal with these “kissing bugs” that are making national headlines for biting our mouths while we sleep and spreading disease?

You’ve probably read some concerning stories about these little critters recently. They usually call rural areas of Latin America home, but are making their way into other parts of the world. And yes, they’re in Colorado.

But that’s not new.

They’ve existed for a long time in very low populations in the extreme western part of the state, said Whitney Cranshaw, a professor and extension specialist in Entomology at Colorado State University. So, what’s all the fuss about? Well, it's still not pretty — the concern is over the parasite in their poop.

On Thursday morning, Cranshaw checked local collection records for the “kissing bugs," which is a blanket term that includes more than 100 individual species in the genus Triatoma. While looking through the documents, he found one record from Mesa Verde, a few from Mesa County, one from San Miguel County and one from Garfield County, which dates back to 1945.

In every one of those instances, the insect was identified as a species in the Triatoma genus called Triatoma protracta (Triatoma sanguisuga is the species that's made the news recently, but the two are affected by the parasite in the same way). This specific species is not very good at spreading the Chagas disease, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

READ MORE: What is a Triatoma insect and what do they look like?

The insects aren’t the problem — it’s the parasite in their gut that has been causing issues. The parasite is called Trypanosoma cruzi, and it can produce and transmit the Chagas disease. The disease has a wide range of effects on a person, based on their age, how they got infected and the strain they have. Some examples include fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea and vomiting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because these are common symptoms of many other diseases and illnesses, most people do not know they have the disease. If left untreated, symptoms can expand to include cardiac complications and gastrointestinal complications.

An uninfected “kissing bug” species can become infected when they bite an animal that already has the Chagas disease. That insect can then transmit the parasite — which lives in its gut — by biting an animal and defecating on the wound. The parasite then enters through the bite wound, eyes, nose or mouth, according to the Department of Public Health and Environment.

The insects' large-scale population movements have not only increased the parasite’s distribution, but also changed the disease’s epidemiology, according to the CDC.

The parasite has been found in Colorado, and other states across the United States, Cranshaw said. But he said he doesn’t think this is new.

“What is new is that people are looking much harder for the organism and finding it in new places as a result,” he said. “The organism involved in producing Chagas disease in humans normally is restricted to wild animal hosts. That is the situation in Colorado and there have never been any human cases of Chagas disease in Colorado. Furthermore, the places where this is a problem almost invariably involve sites of very rustic housing — think dirt floors (and) housing materials that readily support wild mammal hosts and their parasites.”

The Department of Public Health and Environment said the insects are rarely found in indoor areas. When they do venture inside, they usually stick around pet beds, rodent infestations or beds and bedrooms, especially under or near mattresses or night stands.

That may sound terrifying, but what does that all mean? Should you be worried? Is there a real danger? Should you call pest control?

If you don't live in remote areas along the western edge of the state, the answer is, in short, no.

“Kissing bugs” in Colorado are not new and their population has not changed, Cranshaw said. They are very rare and only live in a few sites along the extreme western edge of the state. And while the parasite that produces the disease has now been found in the state, there are no cases of it involving humans in Colorado and it’s unlikely anybody will come into contact with them, he said.

For more information on the Chagas disease and “kissing bugs,” visit the CDC’s website here.