Learn more about this inflammatory, infectious disease caused by a parasite and found in the feces of the triatomine bug.
Chagas (CHAH-gus) disease is an inflammatory, infectious disease caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi. This parasite is found in the feces of the triatomine (reduviid) bug. This bug is also known as the "kissing bug." Chagas disease is common in South America, Central America and Mexico, the primary home of the triatomine bug. Rare cases of Chagas disease have also been found in the southern United States.
Also called American trypanosomiasis, Chagas disease can infect anyone. Left untreated, Chagas disease later can cause serious heart and digestive problems.
During the acute phase of infection, treatment of Chagas disease focuses on killing the parasite. In people who have chronic Chagas disease, it's no longer possible to kill the parasite. Treatment in this later phase is about managing signs and symptoms. You can also take steps to prevent infection.
Chagas disease can cause a sudden, brief illness (acute), or it may be a long-lasting (chronic) condition. Symptoms range from mild to severe, although many people don't experience symptoms until the chronic stage.
The acute phase of Chagas disease, which lasts for weeks or months, is often symptom-free. When signs and symptoms do occur, they are usually mild and may include:
Signs and symptoms that develop during the acute phase usually go away on their own. In some cases, if the infection isn't treated, Chagas disease will advance to the chronic phase.
Signs and symptoms of the chronic phase of Chagas disease may occur 10 to 20 years after initial infection, or they may never occur. In severe cases, Chagas disease signs and symptoms may include:
See your doctor if you live in or have traveled to an area where Chagas disease is widespread and you have signs and symptoms of the condition. Symptoms may include swelling at the infection site, fever, fatigue, body aches, rash and nausea.
The cause of Chagas disease is the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is spread from an insect known as the triatomine bug, or "kissing bug." These insects can become infected by this parasite when they swallow blood from an animal that is infected with the parasite.
Triatomine bugs live primarily in mud, thatch or adobe huts in Mexico, South America and Central America. They hide in crevices in the walls or roof during the day and come out at night — often feeding on sleeping humans.
Infected bugs defecate after feeding, leaving behind parasites on the skin. The parasites can then enter your body through your eyes, mouth, a cut or scratch, or the wound from the bug's bite.
Scratching or rubbing the bite site helps the parasites enter your body. Once in your body, the parasites multiply and spread.
You may also become infected by:
The following factors may increase your risk of getting Chagas disease:
It's rare for travelers to the at-risk areas in South America, Central America and Mexico to catch Chagas disease because travelers tend to stay in well-constructed buildings, such as hotels. Triatomine bugs are usually found in structures built with mud or adobe or thatch.
If Chagas disease progresses to the long-lasting (chronic) phase, serious heart or digestive complications may occur. These may include:
If you live in a high-risk area for Chagas disease, these steps can help you prevent infection:
Your doctor will conduct a physical exam, asking about your symptoms and any factors that put you at risk of Chagas disease.
If you have the signs and symptoms of Chagas disease, blood tests can confirm the presence of the parasite or the proteins that your immune system creates (antibodies) to fight the parasite in your blood.
If you're diagnosed with Chagas disease, you'll likely have more tests. These tests may be done to determine whether the disease has entered the chronic phase and caused heart or digestive complications. Tests may include:
Treatment for Chagas disease focuses on killing the parasite and managing signs and symptoms.
During the acute phase of Chagas disease, the prescription medications benznidazole and nifurtimox (Lampit) may be of benefit. Both drugs are available in the regions most affected by Chagas disease. In the United States, however, the drugs can be obtained only through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Once Chagas disease reaches the chronic phase, medications won't cure the disease. But, the drugs may be offered to people younger than age 50 because they may help slow the progression of the disease and its most serious complications.
Additional treatment depends on the specific signs and symptoms:
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor. Depending on his or her findings, your doctor may refer you to an infectious disease specialist.
It's a good idea to prepare well for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time with your doctor. For Chagas disease, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including: