Various triatomine bugs in all life stages. (Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Recent news reports echoing across the Internet tell of the so-called assassin bug having now been found in at least 28 states. Known also as the kissing bug, or by their scientific name triatomine, they are a parasitic insect that feed on the blood of mammals, birds and reptiles and are endemic to Santa Barbara County.
The primary host of triatomine bugs are packrats, also known as woodrats, which are commonly found in chaparral oak woodlands like those of Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Mountains.
They are called kissing bugs because of their proclivity to bite people around the mouth. The bugs are primarily nocturnal and so tend to bite people while they sleep.
They are also called assassin bugs because some of them, but not all, carry the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease and can be deadly. However, “the transmission of Chagas from a bug to a human is not easy,” notes the CDC. The parasite that causes the deadly disease is found in triatomine feces, which must enter the human body through the bite wound or the eyes or mouth. According to the CDC the risk of getting Chagas disease in the United States is low. Santa Barbara’s Sansum Clinic states that Chagas is not common in the states.
Aside from contracting Chagas disease and the threat of death, bites from certain types of triatomine bugs can also trigger allergic reactions. The CDC notes that these reactions may include “severe redness, itching, swelling, welts, hives, or, rarely, anaphylactic shock.” Allergic reactions do not mean a person has been infected with Trypanosoma cruzi.
“The protozoan parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi, causes Chagas disease, a zoonotic disease that can be transmitted to humans by blood-sucking triatomine bugs.” —CDC
A study published in August 2012, “Do Bites of Kissing Bugs Cause Unexplained Allergies? Results from a Survey in Triatomine-Exposed and Unexposed Areas in Southern California,” suggested a “possibility of a causal link between these symptoms and triatomine exposure.”
However, the study was not conclusive and “despite the plausibility of a causal link between living in triatomine-exposed areas and unexplained allergic reactions, laboratory tests are required to confirm such a link.”
The aforementioned study was “concordant with a previous study in Santa Barbara County.” The previous study “looked at 120 inhabitants of the foothills in Santa Barbara County and found elevated levels of IgE antibodies to Triatoma protracta in 8 (6.7%) persons.”
Triatomine occurrence by U.S. state, as per the CDC.
Kissing bugs have apparently been a known pest for a long time in the Santa Barbara area. The following news brief was published in the Los Angeles Herald in 1899. Readers may note, however, that the last sentence does not seem to agree with the title, and also that the man was bitten during the day though triatomine bugs are primarily nocturnal.