Chagas disease is a disease caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi. It is named for Carlos Chagas, the Brazilian doctor who first identified the disease in 1909.
When people become infected by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, they can get Chagas disease. The feces of insects called triatomine, or “kissing” bugs, transmits the parasite to humans. These bugs feed on the blood of animals and humans at night, and then they defecate. Infection can occur if you unknowingly wipe the feces into your eyes, nose, mouth, or a sore.
The insects are usually found in rural Latin America, in places of widespread poverty. Experts believe that as many as 11 million people in South and Central America and Mexico have the disease. Most don’t know they have it. The disease will not go away without treatment and can eventually lead to death. People in North America are also infected, but in much smaller numbers. However, the disease is spreading as people travel more widely.
In addition to contact with feces from infected bugs, the following can also cause Chagas disease:
You can’t get Chagas disease from another person, the way you can get a cold or the flu from someone else. You have to be exposed to the bug feces yourself. However, you could get the disease if you receive blood, or an organ from a family member or anyone else with the infection.
You’re most at risk for Chagas disease if you:
Symptoms of Chagas disease vary and might be hard to distinguish from another illness. In some people, symptoms may be mild at first and then disappear for years or even decades. In the chronic phase of the disease, the parasite gets inside your heart muscle. This is why later symptoms often involve the heart.
Symptoms of Chagas disease in the acute phase (the first few weeks or months) are:
Symptoms of Chagas disease in the chronic (or long-term) phase may include:
The symptoms of Chagas disease may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
To diagnose the condition, your healthcare provider will consider:
Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment based on:
Early treatment for Chagas disease is the most successful. Recommended treatment may include:
If you have a weak immune system, such as from HIV or cancer, you may need additional treatment. Chagas disease can be more severe in people with these conditions and may lead to earlier death.
If you have Chagas disease, you have about a 30% chance of developing complications.
If you are planning to visit rural areas in Central or South America, choose clean, well-built lodgings. Ask about pest management where you are staying. Consider using bed nets, wearing long sleeves and pants, and using bug repellent day and night.
Chagas disease is not an emergency. However, its effect on the heart and intestines might lead to an emergency. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience signs of heart failure, such as shortness of breath, ongoing cough, tiredness, confusion, and rapid heart rate, especially if you have recently been to Central or South America.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
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