Chagas (SHA-gus) disease is an inflammatory, infectious disease 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. Treatment of Chagas disease focuses on killing the parasite in acute infection and managing signs and symptoms in later stages. You can take steps to prevent the infection, too.
Chagas disease can be acute or chronic. Symptoms range from mild to severe, although many people don't experience symptoms until the chronic stage.
Signs and symptoms that develop during the acute phase usually go away on their own. However, if untreated, the infection persists and advances to the chronic phase.
When to see a doctor
The 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 bugs 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, then come out at night — often feeding on sleeping humans.
When infected bugs bite a person, they leave 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:
The following factors may increase your risk of getting Chagas disease:
It's rare for travelers to the at-risk areas in South America, Central America and Mexico to contract Chagas disease.
If Chagas disease progresses to the chronic phase, serious heart or digestive complications may occur. These may include:
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. Depending on his or her findings, your doctor may refer you to an infectious disease specialist.
It's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time with your doctor. List your questions from most important to least important. For Chagas disease, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Also, don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
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're diagnosed with Chagas disease, you'll likely undergo additional tests to determine whether the disease has entered the chronic phase and caused heart or digestive complications. These tests may include:
Treatments and drugs
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 aren't effective for curing the disease. Instead, treatment depends on the specific signs and symptoms:
If you live in a high-risk area for Chagas disease, these steps can help you prevent infection:
Last Updated: 2011-06-11
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