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May 03, 2019 3 min read

Chagas disease is caused by Trypanosoma cruzi, a parasite found in the feces of triatomine bug.
It is an inflammatory disease that commonly affects residents of Central
America, South America and Mexico. It has also been found a few times in
southern parts of the United States.

Chagas disease is also called American
trypanosomiasis. If it is not treated on time, it could result in digestive and
heart complications.

As other diseases, prevention of Chagas disease
is better than trying to cure it. Curative measures target killing the parasite
at acute stage, while in later chronic stage treatment is targeted at managing
the symptoms.

Symptoms

At the acute phase, some people do not show
symptoms of Chagas disease, while others show just mild symptoms. Symptoms
become worse during chronic phase.

Acute Phase

Acute phase of Chagas disease lasts for weeks or
months. In most cases, victims don’t show symptoms, but in other cases, they
show mild symptoms such as:

  • Body aches
  • Enlargement of
    the liver or spleen
  • Eyelid swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea, diarrhea
    or vomiting
  • Rash
  • Swelling at the
    infection site
  • Swollen glands

With proper treatments, these symptoms go away on
their own, but if left untreated, the diseases progresses to the chronic phase.

Chronic phase

It could take up to 10 or 20 years before the
signs and symptoms of acute phase Chagas disease become manifest. The symptoms
include:

  • Congestive heart
    failure
  • Constipation and
    Abdominal pain due to enlarged colon
  • Difficulty
    swallowing because of enlarged esophagus
  • Irregular
    heartbeat
  • Sudden cardiac
    arrest

When to see a doctor

Because prevention is better than cure,
and treatment is better done at early stages, it is necessary to see a doctor
whenever you visit an area that’s been affected by Chagas disease. Also, if you
see symptoms such as fatigue, fever, body aches, nausea, or swelling of bite
marks, you need to see a doctor immediately.

Request an Appointment at Mayo
Clinic

Causes

Chagas disease comes from the bite of
triatomine bug. The bug’s feces contain a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi.
Triatomine bugs become vectors of the disease when they feed on already
infected animals.

Triatomine bugs are prevalent in Central
America, Mexico and South America, where they live mainly in mud, thatch and
abode huts. In the day, they hide in crevices and other hidden corners, from
where they crawl out at night to feed on sleeping humans.

After biting their victims, triatomine
bugs defecate near the bite site. When the victim wakes up and scratches the
bitten part of their skin, they unknowingly smear the feces into the wound,
thereby giving the parasite easy passage into their body.

Other ways of getting the infection
includes:

  • Mother
    to child infection through birth and breastfeeding
  • Eating
    contaminated food
  • Through
    blood transfusion from an infected donor
  • Organ
    transplantation from an infected donor
  • Accidental
    exposure of laboratory workers to the parasite
  • Going
    to a forest filled with lots of infected animals

Risk factors of Chagas disease

Below are some factors that could predispose one
to contracting Chagas disease:

  • Getting a blood transfusion or organ transplant from an
    infected donor
  • Living in impoverished endemic areas of Mexico, South
    America and North America
  • Staying in a triatomine bug infested house

Travelers are not at much risk of getting Chagas
disease when they visit endemic areas of Mexico, South America and North
America because travelers usually stay in well-built hotels, while triatomine
bugs live mainly in mud and thatch houses.

Complication

Chronic phase of Chagas disease comes with heart
and digestive complications such as

Congestive heart failure: Chagas disease affects
the heart so much that it may not be able to pump blood efficiently, thereby
leading to heart failure.

Megacolon: Chagas disease can cause the colon to
become enlarged, resulting in severe constipation and abdominal pain

Enlargement of the esophagus: Chronic Chagas
disease can enlarge the esophagus to the extent that one may not be able to
swallow or digest food.

How to prevent Chagas disease

If you live in areas at high risk of Chagas
disease, you can protect yourself by

  • Rubbing insect repellent on your skin while sleeping
  • Spraying insecticides to kill the insects
  • Sleeping under insecticide-treated net
  • Avoid sleeping in thatch, adobe or mud houses.