FYI: Those "hairs" are actually venom-filled spines.

By Maggie O'Neill
October 09, 2020
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As if 2020 hasn’t already put us through enough, there have been multiple sightings of a certain hairy-looking caterpillar in Virginia that can cause some serious damage and discomfort—and officials are warning residents to stay far, far away from them.

In a Facebook post shared on October 6 by the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF), the government agency informed the public that there had been "multiple reports" recently of an insect known as the puss caterpillar in some eastern Virginia counties. These puss caterpillars have a hairy appearance, the VDOF explains, but "the 'hairs' of this caterpillar are actually venomous spines that cause a painful reaction if touched"—which is exactly why people are being urged to steer clear of the insect.

That's likely what Crystal Spindel Gaston, 55, of New Kent County, Virignia, wishes she had done. In a recent interview with The Virginia Mercury, Gaston recalled her experience coming into contact with a puss caterpillar.

"It felt exactly like a scorching-hot knife passing through the outside of my calf,” Gaston told the outlet. “Before I looked down to see where it came from, I thought 100% I was going to see a big piece of metal, super sharp, sticking out from my car.”

Instead, Gaston saw a "brownish, hairy creature, not quite 2 inches long, resembling a miniature cat, or maybe a tiny toupee" that she brushed her leg against, stuck to the side of her car. Gaston was reportedly stunned and went to the emergency room feeling "white hot pain." It took her three days to start feeling "normal" again.

The puss caterpillar—known technically as the larva of the southern flannel moth, or Megalopyge opercularis—is one of the most venomous caterpillars in the US, according to the content on the University of Michigan Health System's (UMHS) website. The hairy caterpillar—aka, the wooly slug—is mainly found in the southern states, including Texas, Maryland, and Missouri.

As the VDOF stated, the hairy insects' "hairs" are actually hollow, venom-filled spines that can break off into your skin, if they touch you. If you come into contact with a puss caterpillar–even just by brushing past it—any of the following symptoms are possible:

  • Immediate, intense pain that often comes in waves
  • A swelling, itching rash of red blotches and raised ridges
  • Restlessness and anxiety
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Muscle cramps
  • Swollen glands
  • Symptoms of shock

Medical attention is necessary if you are the victim of a puss caterpillar, the UMHS says, and you should attempt to remove any broken-off spines in your skin by using cellophane tape or a facial peel.

The VDOF's Facebook post goes on to say that these puss caterpillars mainly eat oak and elm leaves, and that they can be found in parks or near structures. "If you find the caterpillar, leave it alone and let its natural enemies control their populations," the VDOF says. "There are a number of other insects that will prey on them at different stages of their life cycle." If that doesn't work, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) says chemical insecticides could do the trick.

For now, though, remember that your only job if you spot a puss caterpillar is to stay far, far away from it. As VDOF put it, “#SocialDistance away from this caterpillar!”

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