“The ‘hairs’ of this caterpillar are actually poisonous spikes that cause a painful reaction if touched,” warns the Virginia Department of Forestry through its Facebook account, adding that it received several reports about the presence of this lepidopteran in some eastern counties of the state.
“The caterpillars eat oak and elm leaves but can be found in parks or near buildings. If you find the caterpillar, leave it alone and let its natural enemies control their populations,” says the agency.
The stuffed caterpillar, or ‘Megalopyge opercularis’, is the larva of a small southern flannel moth, but before it spreads its wings it is considered a danger to people. The insect is less than two inches tall and their bodies are completely hidden under a thick coat of hair covered with poisonous spikes.
Touching those quills can cause painful reactions including an itchy rash, nausea and vomiting, swollen glands, fever, or even symptoms of ‘shock’, which indicates the University of Michigan.
“It looked as if a burning knife had pierced the outside of my calf,” Crystal Spindel Gaston recounted her encounter with the insect to The Daily Progress newspaper. The woman had to go to the emergency room and it took her three days to fully recover.
Specialists point out that if a stuffed caterpillar is touched, it is advisable to wash the affected area to remove the insect hairs and the poison that has remained on the skin. People who are sensitive to insect bites should also seek medical attention.