What is chagas disease?
Chagas disease is an inflammatory, infectious condition caused by a parasite found in the feces of the triatomine (reduviid) 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 been found in the southern United States, as well.
Also called American trypanosomiasis, Chagas disease can infect anyone, but is diagnosed most often in children. Left untreated, Chagas disease later can cause serious heart and digestive problems.
How common is chagas disease?
The disease is present in 18 countries on the American continents, ranging from the southern United States to northern Argentina. Chagas exists in two different ecological zones. In the Southern Cone region, the main vector lives in and around human homes. In Central America and Mexico, the main vector species lives both inside dwellings and in uninhabited areas. In both zones, Chagas occurs almost exclusively in rural areas, where triatomines breed and feed on the more than 150 species from 24 families of domestic and wild mammals, as well as humans, that are the natural reservoirs of T. cruzi.
However, it can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of chagas disease?
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 do not experience symptoms until the chronic stage.
The acute phase of Chagas disease lasts for weeks or months. It is quite difficult to diagnose in some first several days. When signs and symptoms do occur, they are usually mild and may include:
- Swelling at the infection site;
- Body aches;
- Eyelid swelling;
- Loss of appetite;
- Nausea, diarrhea or vomiting;
- Swollen glands;
- Enlargement of your liver or spleen.
Signs and symptoms that develop during the acute phase usually go away on their own. If this condition is untreated, the infection persists and, in some cases, advances 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, however, Chagas disease signs and symptoms may include:
- Irregular heartbeat;
- Congestive heart failure;
- Sudden cardiac arrest;
- Difficulty swallowing due to enlarged esophagus;
- Abdominal pain or constipation due to enlarged colon.
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
In case you live in or have traveled to an area at high risk of Chagas disease and you have signs and symptoms of the condition, such as swelling at the infection site, fever, fatigue, body aches, rash and nausea, you should see your doctor to get some more useful information. Or if you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.
What causes chagas disease?
The common cause of Chagas disease is the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted to humans from a bite from an insect known as the triatomine bug. These insects can become infected by T. cruzi when they ingest blood from an animal already 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, come out at night — often feeding on sleeping humans. Infected bugs defecate after feeding, leaving behind T. cruzi 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:
- Eating uncooked food contaminated with feces from T. cruzi-infected bugs
- Being born to a woman infected with T. cruzi
- Having a blood transfusion containing infected blood
- Getting an organ transplant containing viable T. cruzi
- Working in a laboratory where there’s an accidental exposure to the parasite
- Spending time in a forest that contains infected wild animals, such as raccoons and opossums
- Being around an infected pet
What increases my risk for chagas disease?
The following factors may increase your risk of getting Chagas disease:
- Living in impoverished rural areas of Central America, South America and Mexico;
- Living in a residence that contains triatomine bugs;
- Receiving a blood transfusion or organ transplant from a person who carries the infection;
- It’s rare for travelers to the at-risk areas in South America, Central America and Mexico to contract 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.
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is chagas disease diagnosed?
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 T. cruzi parasite or the proteins that your immune system creates (antibodies) to fight the parasite in your blood.
If you are diagnosed with Chagas disease, you will likely undergo additional tests to determine whether the disease has entered the chronic phase and caused heart or digestive complications. These tests may include:
A procedure that records the electrical activity of your heart.
- Chest X-ray
Which lets your doctor see if your heart is enlarged.
A test that uses sound waves to capture moving images of your heart, allowing your doctor to see any changes to the heart or its function
- Abdominal X-ray
A procedure that uses radiation to capture images of your stomach, intestines and colon
- Upper endoscopy
A procedure in which you swallow a thin, lighted tube (endoscope) that transmits images of your esophagus onto a screen
How is chagas disease treated
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 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 will not cure the disease. But, the drugs may be offered to people under 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:
- Heart-related complications.
Treatment may include medications, a pacemaker or other devices to regulate your heart rhythm, surgery, or even a heart transplant.
- Digestive-related complications.
Treatment may include diet modification, medications, corticosteroids or, in severe cases, surgery.
Lifestyle changes &home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage Chagas disease?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with this condition:
- Spraying of houses and surrounding areas with residual insecticides;
- House improvements to prevent vector infestation;
- Personal preventive measures such as nets;
- Good hygiene practices in food preparation, transportation, storage and consumption;
- Screening of blood donors;
- Testing of organ, tissue or cell donors and receivers; and
- Screening of newborns and other children of infected mothers to provide early diagnosis and treatment.
If you live in a high-risk area for Chagas disease, these steps can help you prevent infection:
- Avoid sleeping in a mud, thatch or adobe house. These types of residences are more likely to harbor triatomine bugs.
- Use insecticide-soaked netting over your bed when sleeping in thatch, mud or adobe houses.
- Use insecticides to remove insects from your residence.
- Use insect repellent on exposed skin.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Chagas disease. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chagas-disease/basics/definition/con-20030854. Accessed November 03, 2016.
Chagas disease. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs340/en/. Accessed November 03, 2016.
Chagas disease. http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/chagas-disease. Accessed November 03, 2016.
Review Date: December 14, 2016 | Last Modified: September 13, 2019