They may look cute and furry but don’t let that fool you. Puss Caterpillars are showing up in Georgia right now and they can put you in a world of pain.
As more and more people spend time outside as the temperatures become cooler, you’ll want to be aware of a little critter that looks like a harmless hair ball.
But the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences says they actually cause the most painful and severe reaction of any urticating species in the U.S.
The little creatures are about an inch long, with short, toxic spines hidden underneath its brown or gray fur. The hairs at the rear end form a tail-like tuft, with the head tucked under the front.
Puss caterpillars feed on oaks, pecans, persimmon, fruit trees, roses and other trees and shrubs. They’re typically loners, although you may find several on a given tree. Late summer and fall is when they appear.
When your skin brushes against the puss caterpillar, the spines break off, releasing an irritating fluid that produces an immediate stinging, burning sensation. The numbness and swelling that follow may extend to your whole arm or leg in severe cases.
One Georgia man told Channel 2 Action News that he was stung on Friday by one of the caterpillars, and he said it was one of the worst things he’s ever felt.
Channel 2′s Lori Wilson talked to a Robin Spry, 51, who said it was way worse than a bee sting.
“It burns,” Spry said. “It feels like somebody put a torch to your skin.”
Spry said he was working on his house when he encountered a puss caterpillar. He said it got caught under his sleeve and the sting was worse than 10 ground bees.
“I’m a big guy and those ten stings from those bees weren’t near as bad as this caterpillar," Spry said.
He said the pain got worse as time went on.
“Friday night, I had some serious problems with nausea,” Spry said. “I actually got up and tried to shake my hand to try to get the feeling back in my arm, because it went numb.”
Dr. Nancy Hinkle, a UGA medical veterinary entomologist, said the caterpillars are common but because they are so well camouflaged, most people feel them before they see them.
“The only way to distinguish them from the harmless caterpillars is to rub against them and see what kind of reaction you get,” Hinkle said. “Once they get into the skin, the spine breaks. It releases this fluid that causes irritation in the skin, and that’s why we humans react.”
Spry is urging people to avoid the caterpillar.
“As pretty as it might be, that done some damage,” Spry said.
Hinkle said the best thing you can do is be aware of your surroundings, watche out of the caterpillars and don’t put your hands anywhere you can’t see.
What to do if you come across the caterpillar
If you’re gardening, mowing the lawn, picking fruit or working in other ways in which you might brush against urticating caterpillars, wear long pants, long-sleeve shirts and gloves.
If one stings you, treat the symptoms. To remove any spines still in the skin, gently stick a piece of adhesive tape to the site and then pull it away. Applying cold compresses can lessen the pain and swelling.
Over-the-counter pain medications and topical hydrocortisone creams may help. If the symptoms include systemic reactions or don’t begin to ease up a couple of days, contact a physician.