Chagas disease, aka American trypanosomiasis, is a parasite infection caused by Trypanosoma cruzi. Not to be confused with African trypanosomiasis, which is caused by the protozoan Trypanosoma brucei.
Chagas disease is spread by insects, and not via casual contact person to person, like a cold or flu. The parasite is transmitted through the feces of an infected insect, most commonly triatomine bugs, aka kissing bugs.
Referred to as kissing bugs because they tend to feed on blood from your face. Reason why is they’re night feeders and that is the part of the body most often exposed while you sleep.
These bugs do dwell in the U.S., yet they’ve only rarely caused this infection. South and Central America is where most cases of Chagas disease originate.
After you’ve been sucked on, the insect defecate, potentially leaving behind infected feces. Then the Chagas causing parasite gains entry through your mucous membranes, eyes in particular, or a break in the skin.
You can also become infected through:
- organ transplant
- blood transfusion
- consuming contaminated uncooked food
- congenital transmission ~ infected maternal to fetal
- breastfed babies if infected mother’s nipples are cracked or blood in breast milk
It is estimated that millions of folks living in, or from, Mexico, Central America and South America have Chagas disease without even knowing they’re infected. And when it’s left untreated, this parasite infection is lifelong and life threatening.
You may never know you’ve been infected because many experience few, if any, symptoms. The one key symptom that stands out unique to Chagas is a “single sided” swollen eye, known as the Romaña sign. It is painless swelling of your upper and lower eyelid, with conjunctivitis, that persists for a few weeks.
The swollen eye doesn’t happen to everyone. And why it occurs in some is because there’s a tendency to rub the kissing bugs Trypanosoma infected feces into your eye after a bite.
Initial Chagas infection symptoms, beyond your swollen eye, may include:
- loss of appetite
- enlarged spleen
- high temperature
- nausea, vomiting
- swollen lymph nodes
- nosebleeds ~ typically young children
- chagomas ~ painful, red skin nodule at bug bite site
Because many of it’s kick-off symptoms are similar to common viral infections, Chagas disease often goes undiscovered. Although your symptoms may subside, if you haven’t been treated then you’re still infected with the Trypanosoma parasite.
Chagas disease can go into remission after the initial phase, and you may not experience any other symptoms for years, if ever. Should chronic symptoms develop, they may involve:
And if you don’t eat due to swallowing difficulties, this can lead to malnutrition.
What makes Chagas disease so serious is its delayed damage to your heart. Cardiac complications may cause:
The two medications used to treat Trypanosoma parasite infection are benznidazole and nifurtimox. In the U.S., these drugs for Chagas disease are only available through the CDC.
Both drugs can cause side effects, such as:
Treatment for Chagas disease is usually effective when given during the swollen eye phase of your parasite infection. There’s no vaccine available to prevent Trypanosoma from causing you Chagas disease.