SAN ANGELO, Texas — Jennifer Bankston was sitting cross-legged on the deck of her parents' home in Mason, Texas, when she was bitten by "kissing bugs."
To her shock, she stood to find a long row of the bugs between the cracks of the deck boards. She didn't realize they had repeatedly bitten both her legs until the itching started.
"The experience has been awful, and I really hope that others can be made aware of how bad these 'kissing bugs' really are," Banskton said of the June 16 incident.
Kissing bugs — or triatomine bugs — are blood-sucking insects known to carry the parasite that causes Chagas, an inflammatory, infectious disease that can be deadly, especially for babies, people with immune deficiencies and puppies. And seven species of the insect live throughout Texas.
Banskton, who lives in Olney, about 100 miles northwest of Fort Worth, began itching almost immediately after she was bitten. Over the next few days, her legs and feet began to swell and itch uncontrollably. The bites left red marks up and down her legs.
She counted about 11 bites on the back of her left leg and 10 on her right.
"I have had severe itching on every place I was bit," she said. "The doctor gave me a steroid shot that made the swelling go down, thank goodness. As of right now, the only thing itching is my feet."
In addition to the steroid shot, she received antibiotics and a corticosteroid cream to apply to the bites.
Slathering her legs in calamine lotion and wrapping them in gauze, she said, was "a life-saver."
"Man, that was a relief from the itching. It was awesome. I recommend that," she said, laughing.
The kissing bug is most prevalent in Mexico, Central and South America. But it has been found in the southern United States, mostly in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
This bug varies in diameter from the size of a penny to a quarter, with dark backs that sometime are orange or fringed in red. They look similar to a stinkbug, but with a distinctive pointed snout.
Its painless bite helps it go unnoticed, but once the blood-sucking insect takes a bite, it defecates on or near the wound, sometimes infecting the victim with the Chagas parasite.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Chagas disease has an acute and a chronic phase. If left untreated, the infection is lifelong.
The acute phase occurs immediately after infection and may last up to a few months, and parasites may be found circulating in the blood. The infection may be mild or show no symptoms.
Symptoms likely to occur are fever or swelling around the bite. Rarely does an acute infection result in severe inflammation of the heart muscle or the brain and lining around the brain, the CDC reports.
An estimated 20-30 percent of infected people will develop debilitating and sometimes life-threatening medical problems over the course of their lives, the CDC reports.
As of Tuesday, a smear blood test was negative for the parasite and Chagas, Bankston said, but doctors sent some other blood work to New York to have it double-checked.
The insect bites are slowly going away but have left discolored marks on her legs and feet. The itching however, is still present.
"It's been so scary," Bankston said. "If I did have this (Chagas disease), the only way the doctor could get me medicine is through the CDC. It could not be gotten from the pharmacy."
"People need to get rid of those bugs," Bankston said. "They may be called kissing bugs, but they are dangerous."
Contributing: David Sikes of the Caller Times
The CDC says kissing bugs can live in cracks and holes indoors and in outdoor spaces including:
• Beneath porches.
• Between rocky structures.
• Under cement.
• In rock, wood, brush piles or beneath bark.
• In rodent nests or animal burrows.
• In outdoor dog houses or kennels.
• In chicken coops or houses.
To keep these bugs away from you home, the CDC suggests:
• Sealing cracks and gaps around windows, walls, roofs and doors.
• Removing wood, brush and rock piles near your house.
• Using screens on doors and windows and repairing any holes or tears.
• If possible, making sure yard lights are not close to your house (lights can attract the bugs).
• Sealing holes and cracks leading to the attic, crawl spaces below the house and to the outside.
• Having pets sleep indoors, especially at night.
• Keeping your house and any outdoor pet resting areas clean and periodically checking for the presence of bugs.
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