Lauren Chambers couldn’t believe it when her daughter’s daycare informed her that 5-year-old Adrie had been stung by “the most poisonous caterpillar in the United States.”
As KXAS-TV reported, the young girl from Texas was outside when the caterpillar fell from a tree and landed on her arm. Adrie said the area began “burning.” It soon became numb, and she wasn’t able to bend her elbow properly.
The daycare workers were alarmed by Adrie’s description of the sting and did some online research. That’s when they learned the fuzzy, fluffy, seemingly innocuous caterpillar was actually toxic.
Adrie had been stung by the southern flannel moth caterpillar, also known as an “asp” or “puss” caterpillar. According to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC), the asp caterpillar’s fuzzy exterior conceals a series of spines that are connected to a poison sac. When touched, the spines break off, stay in the skin, and release a dangerous venom.
University of Florida entomologist Don Hall told National Geographic that the caterpillar’s sting is initially like a bee sting but rapidly gets worse “and can even make your bones hurt.”
“How bad the sting hurts depends on where you get stung and how many spines are embedded in your 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.”
Reactions to the caterpillar’s sting are highly individual. Michael Merchant, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, told KXAS a friend of his felt like he was having heart problems after an asp caterpillar stung him.
According to the AACC, in addition to intense pain, the caterpillar’s sting can result in nausea, headaches, shock, and respiratory distress. The spines can travel, with one researcher describing how a spine was transferred from a shoe to the eye with very painful results. The AACC recommends removing spines with adhesive tape before washing the area with soap and water.
Fortunately, Adrie’s teachers did exactly that, using tape to quickly remove the caterpillar’s toxic spines. In doing so, they saved the young girl from more serious health problems. Though Adrie had to go to the hospital for nausea, swelling, and pain, Lauren says it could have been worse without the teacher’s quick action:
“[Doctors] said if that had not happened, it could actually cause her whole body to go numb and start shutting down.”
Lauren says she didn’t even know the poisonous caterpillar was present in Texas. According to the AACC, the asp has been located as far north as Kentucky and Virginia, though it is more usually found along the Gulf Coast.
The asp caterpillar population tends to rise and fall in cycles. However, with winter on the way, the caterpillars should begin to disappear within the next few weeks. When they re-emerge as moths in the spring, they won’t have the toxic spines anymore.