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

Months after the murderous hornet invaded the Pacific Northwest, Virginia health officials are warning residents to keep an eye out for a new insect threat - a poisonous breed of hairy caterpillars discovered in the eastern part of the state. The Virginia Department of Forestry posted the warning on Facebook earlier this week, along with a photo of the caterpillar covered in human-like hair.
"The VDOF forest health team has received reports of the tomcat in some counties in eastern Virginia," the October 6 post said. While the beetle looks like a harmless toupee that has been thrown away, the VDOF says that the “hairs” on the caterpillar “are actually poisonous spines that cause a painful reaction when touched”.
The Virginia Department of Forestry says people should avoid the poisonous caterpillar. (Photo: Facebook / Virginia Department of Forestry)
The puss in boots, one of the most venomous caterpillars in the United States, is the larval stage of the southern flannel moth known as the megalopyge opercularis. Nancy Troyano, Ph.D. Honest Pest Control, tells Yahoo Life. “These caterpillars have a thick covering of fine hairs that range in color from brown to dark brown and gray,” she says.
Male caterpillars are most common in the southeastern and south-central portions of the United States, although Troyano says they have been reported as far north as New Jersey and Missouri. "They are all the way to Texas and Arkansas," Ben Hottel, technical services director at Orkin, LLC, a pest control company, told Yahoo Life. "These moths can be common in these areas but are most common in Texas."
Although toxic to humans, caterpillars appear to crossbreed with humans frequently. "Of the 11 species in this family of moths in North America, the southern flannel moth is the most commonly encountered by humans," says Troyano.
The cat caterpillar is poisonous because it is covered with poisonous spines that are hidden under its coat, explains Hottel. "They use this poison to defend themselves against predators they might want to eat," he says.
"During handling, these poisonous spines break off when they come into contact with the skin and release a poison," says Troyano. "It can cause a severe and painful reaction."
The caterpillars do not target people - they eat oak and elm leaves, according to the VDOF - but they are in parks or near buildings where people might be, increasing the risk of an accidental encounter.
According to Troyano, hangover caterpillars can cause the following symptoms when you come in contact with them: a burning sensation where the spine is touching the skin, localized swelling, red, blotchy skin, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, swollen glands, or fever
Several people have described severe pain after coming into contact with a hangover caterpillar. In August, a woman in Florida told Fox13 that a woman brushed her arm after exercising outdoors, which caused painful red marks on her arm. She said it took hours for the pain to subside.
And last month, a Virginia woman ended up in the emergency room after a caterpillar resting on her car door touched her leg. "It felt just like a scorching hot knife going through the outside of my calf," Crystal Spindel Gaston told The Daily Progress. "Before I looked down to see where it was coming from, I 100 percent thought I was seeing a large piece of metal, super sharp, sticking out of my car." Gaston, who went to the hospital for treatment, said it took three days for her to feel normal again.
The cat's caterpillar was also responsible for a case report published in Cureus magazine describing 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 antihistamines.
If you spot a tomcat in your yard or around your home, Troyano says not to panic. "In general, caterpillar populations are kept under control by natural predators," she says. "However, if you see multiple caterpillars in your yard, you should contact a pest control company for help."
And if you come in contact with a caterpillar, Troyano recommends washing the affected area immediately with soap and water. Then remove any broken spikes that are in your skin with cellophane tape. "See a doctor and look for signs of anaphylactic shock," says Troyano.
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