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Listen Up! We Don’t Have Kissing Bugs in the Northeast

By Chris Williams on January 27, 2016.

There has been a lot in the news lately about blood-sucking “kissing bugs” invading the U.S. These bugs are related to bed bugs but suck blood mainly from animals other than humans. Kissing bugs (genus Triatoma) get their name because they sometimes suck blood from the faces of sleeping people. That part alone tends to freak people out. But the real concern is that kissing bugs can spread Chagas disease when their feces enters a cut or a mucous membrane. Chagas disease is caused by a blood parasite and eventually kills its victim when it attacks the heart.

Do We Need to Worry?

Kissing bugs have always been present in limited parts of the U.S. but not as far north as Massachusetts or New Hampshire. They are found mostly in the Southwest where they live in the nests of pack rats. Kissing bugs are most common in impoverished areas where they feed on wild and domestic animals, including chickens, other farm animals, and dogs.

Even in U.S. regions where kissing bugs occur, Chagas disease in humans is rare. Most U.S. cases are connected to people who have traveled in Central or South America where the disease is common. Some say that cases of Chagas disease have lately been increasing in the U.S., but other researchers say there is no such increase in U.S. cases, that it’s all media hype. There apparently is also no evidence that kissing bugs have increased in number or that they are moving northward.

Part of the new interest in Chagas disease can be traced to results of a research project published about a year ago that showed that bed bugs could transmit Chagas disease to mice, at least in the lab (see In the News – Can Bed Bugs Transmit Chagas Disease?). To date, there is no evidence that bed bugs can successfully transmit any disease to humans.

Misidentification Leads to Worries

Another thing that may be causing undue concern is that there are other bugs that look like the kissing bug, particularly the western conifer seed bug which is a common overwintering pest in our area (see Western Conifer Seed Bugs are a Northeastern Pest). Both bugs are about ½ to 3/4 inch long, much larger than a bed bug, and are brown and black in color. The western conifer seed bug has leaf-like shapes on its hind legs to help in identification. Seed bugs often move into homes to spend the winter but they are simply nuisance pests that do not suck blood.

Let me repeat: Kissing bugs don’t occur in our region, and neither does Chagas disease. Now you can rest easy. All you have left to worry about are bed bugs and they don’t spread any known diseases to people.

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