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.
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 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
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea, diarrhea or vomiting
- 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.
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.
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.
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.