Health officials in Virginia are warning about venomous caterpillars that look like toupées

Korin Miller

Months after the invasion of murder hornets in the Pacific Northwest, health officials in Virginia are warning residents to be on the lookout for a new bug menace — a venomous breed of hairy caterpillar that has been spotted in the eastern part of the state. The Virginia Department of Forestry shared the warning on Facebook earlier this week, along with a photo of the caterpillar, which is covered in human-like hair.

“VDOF’s forest health team has received reports of the puss caterpillar in a few eastern Virginia counties,” read the Oct. 6 post. While the bug looks like a harmless, discarded toupée, the VDOF says that the “hairs” on the caterpillar “are actually venomous spines that cause a painful reaction if touched.”

The Virginia Department of Forestry says people should avoid the venomous pus caterpillar. (Photo: Facebook/Virginia Department of Forestry)
The Virginia Department of Forestry says people should avoid the venomous pus caterpillar. (Photo: Facebook/Virginia Department of Forestry)

The puss caterpillar, which is one of the most venomous caterpillars in the U.S., is the larva stage of the Southern flannel moth known as Megalopyge opercularis, Nancy Troyano, Ph.D., a board certified entomologist and director of operations education and training for Ehrlich Pest Control, tells Yahoo Life. “These caterpillars have a dense covering of fine hairs that range in color from tan to dark brown and gray,” she says.

Puss caterpillars are most commonly found in the southeastern and south central portion of the U.S., although Troyano says they have been reported as far north as New Jersey and Missouri. “They can be found as far west as Texas and Arkansas,” Ben Hottel, technical services manager for Orkin, LLC, a pest control company, tells Yahoo Life. “These moths can be common in these areas, but are most abundant in Texas.”

But, while they’re toxic to people, puss caterpillars seem to cross paths with humans often. “Among the 11 species of this family of moths in North America, the southern flannel moth is the most commonly encountered by humans,” Troyano says.

The puss caterpillar is toxic because it’s covered in venomous spines that are hidden beneath its hair coat, Hottel explains. “They use this venom to defend against predators that might want to eat them,” he says.

“When handled, these poisonous spines will break off when they come into contact with skin and release a toxin,” Troyano says. “That can cause a severe and painful reaction.”

The caterpillars don’t target humans — they eat oak and elm leaves, according to the VDOF — but they can be found in parks or near structures where people might be, raising the risk of an accidental encounter.

According to Troyano, puss caterpillars can cause the following symptoms if you come into contact with them: a burning sensation where the spine contacted the skin, localized swelling, red, blotching appearance of the skin, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, swollen glands or fever

Several people have described intense pain after coming into contact with a puss caterpillar. In August, one woman in Florida told Fox13 that one brushed up against her arm after an outdoor workout, causing painful red welts to form on her arm. She said it took hours for the pain to ease.

And last month, a Virginia woman landed in the ER after a puss caterpillar that was resting on her car door brushed against her leg. “It felt exactly like a scorching-hot knife passing through the outside of my calf,” Crystal Spindel Gaston told The Daily Progress. “Before I looked down to see where it came from, I thought 100 percent I was going to see a big piece of metal, super sharp, sticking out from my car.” Gaston, who went to the hospital for treatment, said it took three days before she started to feel normal again.

The puss caterpillar also was to blame for a case report published in the journal Cureus that described a 14-month-old boy who developed a red rash on his leg after sitting in a park with his parents. It spread and was treated with antihistamine drugs.

If you spot a puss caterpillar in your yard or on your home, Troyano says you shouldn’t panic. “In general, puss caterpillar populations are kept under control by natural enemies,” she says. “However, if you are seeing multiple caterpillars in your yard, you should contact a pest control company for help.”

And if you come into contact with a puss caterpillar, Troyano recommends immediately washing the affected area with soap and water. Then, remove any broken spines that are in your skin with cellophane tape. “Seek medical attention and for signs of anaphylactic shock,” Troyano says.

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