A dangerous parasitic illness that can damage your heart has been spreading across the United States, and soon it could be detected in New Jersey.

Chagas disease, which has been diagnosed in 300,000 people in 30 states, is spread by the triatomine insect, known as the "kissing bug." It already has spread to Pennsylvania and experts fear New Jersey could be next.

“What they tend to do is they like to go for the face, hence the name kissing bug, and they will bite you on the face or around the eye,” said Dr. Ted Louie, an infectious disease expert with the Medical Society of New Jersey.

The parasite trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease, is actually spread through the feces of the kissing bug, which may be rubbed into the wound that is caused by the insect biting you.

Texas A&M University
Texas A&M University

“Oftentimes, one of the classic signs is that you get swelling above your eye, and then there’s an acute illness, which is fever and muscle aches," Louie said.

Other early symptoms can include fatigues, a rash and headache.

Dr. Rachana Kulkarni, a New Jersey cardiologist with the American Heart Association, said many people who may get Chagas don’t experience symptoms until years later.

“The most common conditions are cardiomyopathy, which is the heart kind of gets ballooned, and then the parasite starts killing the heart muscle and it leads to heart failure.”

She said the parasite will start replacing the heart muscle with scar tissue and this can lead to an aneurysm. Patients can have irregular and sometimes fatal heart rhythms.

For decades, Chagas was typically found in Central and South America but it is now spreading here.

“We need to instill screening processes, and clinicians and physicians need to be aware of this so it can be treated properly," Kulkarni said.

Louie said if you live in a modern house or apartment, the chances of getting Chagas are slim, but if you spend time in more rural areas or if you go camping, the risk increases.

He said if you suspect you might have been bitten by a kissing bug you should seek medical help as soon as possible because different anti-parasitic medications have been shown to have a good success rate.

Also on New Jersey 101.5:

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

More From New Jersey 101.5 FM