What is the Kissing Bug?

Mary McMahon

A kissing bug is an insect in the subfamily Triatominae, part of the larger family Reduviidae. There are thousands of species in the Triatominae subfamily, most of which are found in the Americas, especially in tropical and subtropical regions. Kissing bugs are also known as assassin bugs, masked hunters, conenoses, and triatomines, and in some regions, they are a major pest.

Allergic reactions to the kissing bug can vary from mild facial and throat swelling to anaphylaxis.
Allergic reactions to the kissing bug can vary from mild facial and throat swelling to anaphylaxis.

The common name “kissing bug” is a reference to the feeding behavior of these insects. Kissing bugs feed on blood from humans and other animals, and they often feed from the area around the lips, where the skin is thinner, making it easier to penetrate. Kissing bugs are active at night, using their excellent sense of smell to track down victims while they sleep, and they typically alight next to their prey, stretching out a long proboscis to the area of interest.

It may not be clear by visual inspection alone whether a person was bitten by a kissing bug or other insect.
It may not be clear by visual inspection alone whether a person was bitten by a kissing bug or other insect.

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Triatomines have black to brown flattened bodies which are designed to swell as they feed. In studies on these insects, researchers have discovered that the kissing bug can go up to four months between feedings. The insects commonly live in animal nests, taking advantage of a ready potential food supply, and they are indiscriminate feeders.

From a human health perspective, the kissing bug can be a problem. Some people have allergic reactions to kissing bug bites, which may vary from mild swelling and redness to anaphylaxis. These reactions are caused by secretions made by the bug to slow the rate of clotting so that it can feed as much as possible. Since kissing bugs strike at night, if people wake up with a reddish bite mark, they may not realize that a kissing bug is the cause, in which case they may not seek medical treatment, allowing the reaction to spread.

Some kissing bug species also act as disease vectors, transporting various disease-causing microorganisms between their prey. Chagas disease has been linked with kissing bugs, and some other diseases may be transmitted as well. Especially in a poorly-maintained household, kissing bugs may form a colony, soiling the house with feces and using the house to lay eggs, creating a health hazard.

Because kissing bugs are so widespread in the tropics and subtropics, along with other insects, it is a good idea to limit interaction with insects as much as possible. Using screened windows and insect tents over beds can help to prevent nighttime feedings, and the use of citronella candles and insect sprays to deter insects from outdoor gatherings, especially at night, is highly advised.

Use of citronella candles may help deter insects, such as mosquitoes, from outdoor gatherings.
Use of citronella candles may help deter insects, such as mosquitoes, from outdoor gatherings.

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Discussion Comments

anon170286

i killed one bug today and got scared when blood came out of it. i think it got a dog (i have four). i live in mexico in the yucatan peninsula and now i found another so i looked it up. It's creepy.

anon152635

i got bitten from these kissing bug and it all started about a year and six months and up to two nights back. i was bitten again I'm getting worried. is there anything that i should do to get help? I'm living in guyana.

anon107963

I got bit by a kissing bug yesterday. ever since i got bit, my legs have been very weak. I'm also very itchy.

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