*This post originally appeared on The PediaBlog on October 12, 2015.
The Very Itchy Caterpillar
Have you seen this little white bugger crawling around lately? Right now these tree pests are eating their way through the leaves of deciduous trees in the northeastern U.S. But in another month, this white hickory tussock moth caterpillar will go into its cocoon state for the winter, emerging in the spring as a hickory tussock moth. In the meantime, these furry little creatures are best left alone:
If you see the white hickory tussock moth caterpillar, don’t touch it. The insect’s fuzzy black spines contain venom to ward off predators, but can also also irritate human skin. The good news is the nasty rash it leaves behind is treatable with lotion and ice.
What are some of the caterpillar’s distinguishing features? It can be either white or brightly colored. More importantly, it has hairs with barbs that can stick into your skin and its back contains rash-giving venom.
Sheldon Ingram found that contact with the caterpillar can cause more than just rashes:
The white hickory tussock moth caterpillar has been spotted in parts of western Pennsylvania. Its fuzzy black spines contain venom that they use to ward off predators, but it can also irritate human skin.
John Rawlins, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, says the little creature should not be handled.
“It’s a nuisance, and with the right conditions it can be dangerous, including not quite life-threatening, but it could jeopardize your vision,” he said.
Rawlins said the caterpillar secretes a chemical as a defense mechanism when it is handled, and unsuspecting people sometimes put their hands near their eyes and mouth or other parts of their body, causing a bad reaction.
“Those tissues are soft and very easy to penetrate,” Rawlins said.
If your or your child’s skin gets pricked by the tiny barbs of the caterpillar, it’s going to cause a red and itchy skin rash. Cold compresses placed right on the rash should soothe the itchiness and take away some of the redness. Using topical anti-itch lotions (like Calamine or Aveeno lotions) and over-the-counter steroid creams (1% hydrocortisone used twice a day for 3-5 days) can help as well.