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All About Chagas Disease?

What is Chagas Disease?

Chagas disease, also known as American trypanosomiasis is an infectious, and inflammatory disease that is caused by a parasite known as Trypanosoma cruzi which is mostly found in the feces of the triatomine (reduviid) bug, also known as the ‘kissing bug’. Humans get this disease when they are bitten by the kissing bug that is infected by the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite. This disease is common in South America, Central America, and Mexico because this parasite is exclusive to these regions. When a person gets in contact with the ‘kissing bug’, he gets infected by Chagas disease and if it’s left untreated it can lead to serious digestive and heart disease which might be life-threatening but if prompt treatment is taken, this disease can be cured totally.

What are the Types of Chagas Disease?

There are no types of Chagas disease but it is divided into two phases including:

Acute Phase: This phase lasts for nearly a few weeks or months and during the start of the phase, a person suffering from it may not show any symptoms or mild ones like fever, fatigue, body pain, headache, rash, loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea which are common symptoms of various diseases so if the patient is not taken for treatment, it might be difficult to know that it’s Chagas disease. A doctor may suspect Chagas disease because apart from the above-mentioned symptoms, some more symptoms such as liver or spleen may become slightly enlarged, swollen glands, or swelling at the site of the bite. The symptoms of the acute phase normally fade away by itself but in some instances, if it’s not treated then it can develop in the chronic phase.

Chronic Phase: Im this phase the disease may remain for many years or even throughout your life and the symptoms may start to appear after a decade or two which may include irregular heartbeat, heart failure, sudden cardiac arrest, problems in swallowing because of the enlarged esophagus, stomach ache or constipation because of the enlarged colon. The chronic phase of this disease can be life-threatening because the symptoms appear very late and people with it may die because of cardiac arrest or gastrointestinal complications.

What are the Symptoms of Chagas Disease?

The symptoms of Chagas disease are based on the phases of the disease.

The symptoms of the acute phase which mostly last for a few weeks or months mostly include:

  • Swelling at the area of the bug bite
  • Symptoms of flu including fever, body pain, headache, and, fatigue
  • Pain in muscles.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • The spleen or liver becoming enlarged.
  • Vomiting
  • Swollen glands.

The symptoms of the chronic phase start to appear years after the initial infection and they mostly include:

  • Pain in chest.
  • Palpitations in heart.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Problems in swallowing and eating food.
  • Finding it difficult to pass stool.
  • Dizziness.
  • Fainting.
  • Feeling tired constantly
  • Sudden and unexpected death.

What is the Cause of Chagas Disease?

Chagas disease is caused by a crawling, blood-sucking parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi. This disease occurs in humans when an insect known as the triatomine bug, or “kissing bug” is infected by the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite and bites them. These bugs defecate after sucking your blood and leave the parasites on your skin which enters into the body through your mouth, nose, eyes, any cut, or the wound of the bite. When a bug bites you, it itches and when you scratch the bitten area then also the parasite enters your body. Other ways of getting infected are eating food contaminated with feces from bugs infected with the parasite, a baby may inherit this disease if the mother is already infected, blood transfusion or organ transplant from a person who is infected, or you can get it from infected animals also.

What are the Risk Factors of Chagas Disease?

The risk factors of Chagas disease include

  • Accidentally getting exposed to the parasite in a lab
  • People living in Latin America because this parasite is exclusive to it.
  • Getting in contact with an infected person or animal who might work as the carrier of this parasite
  • Getting a blood transfusion or organ transplant from an infected person
  • Eating raw sugar cane sticks, undercooked or unpasteurized food that’s contaminated with feces or urine of an infected triatomine bug

What are the Complications of Chagas Disease?

If Chagas disease develops from acute to chronic phase then the chances of heart or digestive complications may occur which can lead to complications including:

Heart failure: The chronic phase may result in heart failure where your heart may become too weak or stiff and be unable to pump enough blood your body needs.

Enlargement of the esophagus (megaesophagus): Though rare, in some cases your esophagus may become abnormally wide and create problems with swallowing and digestion.

Enlargement of the colon (megacolon):  Megacolon happens when your colon becomes unusually dilated, which can lead to stomach pain, swelling, and dreadful constipation.

How Chagas Disease is Diagnosed?

At first, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and whether you recently visited a place where this disease is common. After that, your doctor may prescribe a few tests such as:

Blood Tests: A sample of your blood will be taken to check the presence of the Chagas disease-inducing parasite Trypanosoma cruzi in your blood to confirm whether you have Chagas disease or not because the symptoms of this disease are found in some other diseases also.

Electrocardiogram: This test is done to record your heart’s electrical activity as it helps to know which phase of Chagas disease you have

Chest X-ray: This test helps to detect if you have an enlarged heart which is one of the complications of this disease.

Echocardiogram: Here sound waves are used  to create images of your heart, which allows your doctor to detect if there are any changes to the heart or its functions

Abdominal X-ray: Here radiation is used to take images of your stomach, intestines, and colon so that your doctor can examine the phase of Chagas disease

Upper endoscopy: In this test, a thin, lighted tube (endoscope) is inserted into your body through the mouth and the images of your esophagus are transmitted onto a screen which helps a doctor to diagnose the disease.

What are the Treatment Options Available for Chagas Disease?

The treatment of Chagas disease mostly focuses on killing the parasites and managing the symptoms. Antiparasitic medications, like benznidazole and nifurtimox, are given during the acute phase to kill the parasites which are present in your body. When the Chagas disease reaches the chronic phase, it can’t be cured but the symptoms can be managed and progression of the disease can be slowed down to avert serious complications.

In the chronic phase, you might develop heart-related problems and in such instances, medications are given to ease the problems but if medicines are not working then a pacemaker or other devices are planted to make your heart function properly, and in very serious cases even surgery or heart transplantation may be needed to keep you alive. To manage digestive system related disorders, medicines, and corticosteroids are given. Changes in your diet are made to ease the symptoms and in severe cases, surgery may be needed.

Living with Chagas Disease

Chagas disease mostly has flu-like symptoms which fade away by themselves in some days but in some cases, it may lead to severe complications that might be life-threatening. If you live in a place where Chagas disease is common or recently travelled there and experiencing the symptoms which are common to the flu then get yourself diagnosed because this disease can be cured in its acute phase but once it reaches the chronic phase it can’t be cured but only the symptoms can be managed. In severe cases, Chagas disease can be fatal also, so if you live or are visiting Latin American countries, then take precautions like using bug spray, and keeping the place clean where you stay.

Whom to Consult?

If you recently traveled to a place where the Chagas disease is common such as Latin American countries and after coming back you experience the signs and symptoms of the disease like swelling in a particular area, fever, fatigue, headache, body pain, vomiting, rash, and nausea, then immediately contact your doctor and get yourself diagnosed and then get treatment accordingly.

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