For most Americans, autumn means carving up pumpkins, hot cocoa, hay rides and trick-or-treaters, with Thanksgiving coming just around the bend.
But for residents of some states, this time of year also means the presence of particularly venomous caterpillars.
The fluffy appearance of the creature, referred to as an asp caterpillar, puss caterpillar, or southern flannel moth caterpillar, may make it seem cute and harmless, but officials are warning everyone — particularly parents of small children — to avoid these insects.
The caterpillars are little over an inch long, teardrop-shaped and covered with long, silky hairs, ranging in color from light brown to yellow to gray, according to KVUE. Coming into contact with one could mean burning pain, swelling, nausea and itching.
Molly Keck, an entomologist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, explained how such a small creature could cause such a painful reaction.
“They have spines underneath their body that have venom glands, so when they land on you, those spines can dislodge and get stuck in your skin and that venom just kind of trickles out like a stinger would and you can react to that pretty badly,” Keck said, according to KENS.
Keck said the insects can usually be found around oak and elm trees, and that they usually appear in groups.
As noted in a 2007 Clinical Toxicology article about asp caterpillar envenomation:
Asp caterpillars pose a seasonal health hazard. Intense, throbbing pain develops immediately or within five minutes of contact with the caterpillar. Stings on the arm may also result in pain in the armpit region. Erythematous (blood- colored) spots typically appear at the site of the sting. Other symptoms can include headaches, nausea, vomiting, intense abdominal distress, lymphadenopathy, lymphadenitis, and sometimes shock or respiratory stress. Pain usually subsides within an hour and spots disappear in a day or so; however, with a larger dose of the venom, it is not uncommon for the symptoms to last several days or longer.Often, those envenomated by the asp caterpillar find that health care professionals have never seen nor heard of thecreature; the caregivers are left with little to go on, and the victims are left with the distress of an unknown prognosis.Existing literature often involves a single case study, a self-reported envenomation, or a handful of cases. The need for better informationabout these caterpillars is not purely academic: at times public schools in Texas have been temporarily shut down because of outbreaks of the caterpillar, and more generally the problem of ignorance in the medical community can lead to under-treatment or mistreatment.“Where you have them, usually you have a lot of them. So you probably won’t see one in a tree. There’s going to be others around,” she explained.
Seamus Ehrhard from the Fort Worth Zoo warned that, in some cases, the bite from one of these creatures is worse than a bee sting and can cause pain for up to 12 hours.
“If you just graze it, it might start burning and you might have a couple of red dots, but if you get it caught between your fingers then it’s pretty bad,” Ehrhard said, according to KTVT.
And even after one of these caterpillar has been killed, their venom can still hurt you.
“So even when you treat them and they fall out of the tree dead, don’t even pick one up if it’s dead,” Keck warned.
National Geographic has deemed this species “the most venomous caterpillar in the U.S,” nicknaming them the “toxic toupees” because of their fluffy appearance.
University of Florida entomologist Don Hall told National Geographic the severity of the pain depends on where the victim gets stung and how many spines get embedded in the skin.
“People who have been stung on the hand say the pain can radiate up to their shoulder and last for up to 12 hours,” Hall explained.
Residents from Florida to Texas to North Carolina should be aware of these dangerous creatures, know how to spot them and warn others, such as children or visitors, who may not be aware of their potentially painful sting.
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