Of all the insects and insects that children come in contact with, caterpillars appear to be quite harmless. After all, these fluffy little creatures are very cute and eventually turn into butterflies or moths.
While it is true that encountering a caterpillar is not as potentially dangerous as, say, a bee sting or a tick bite , caterpillars are not always as innocent as they seem. So while children may find it fun to pick up a caterpillar and play with it, it can cause an itchy and even painful rash .
Causes and symptoms
The characteristic of caterpillars that is usually the most seductive – fluffy tufts that make them look like stuffed insect toys – can cause problems. Exposure to the creature's tiny hairs, called bristles, is believed to trigger an overactive immune response in some people.
In response to what it sees as a threat, the immune system floods the body with a pro-inflammatory compound called histamine. It can cause a number of allergic symptoms that affect the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract .
Touching the caterpillar can cause redness, swelling, itching, rashes, scars, and small fluid-filled sacs called blisters. You may also experience a burning or tingling sensation.
Other species of caterpillars, such as the southern flannel moth ( Megalopyge opercularis ), found in parts of Texas, are known to cause bites and localized skin reactions .
The photo below shows an example of what the symptoms of a caterpillar rash would look like on a human hand.
These symptoms can appear in minutes and last for one or more days. If a child touches their eyes or nose after grasping or putting a caterpillar in their mouth, the reaction can be more serious. There may be sneezing, coughing, runny nose, red eyes, shortness of breath, sore mouth, itching, and difficulty swallowing.
Reactions to caterpillars are more confusing because they are easily mistaken for something else and therefore not properly treated. In 2011, 23 children in Florida developed a rash as a result of contact with white bush caterpillars ( Orgyia leucostigma ).
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most children were initially misdiagnosed with a variety of conditions, including chickenpox , molluscum contagiosum , and even life-threatening MRSA infections .
It is important to know that sometimes a child can develop a rash without even touching a caterpillar with a finger, especially in areas where many animals live at the same time. Tiny wisps can fly through the air and land on bare skin. They can also leave bristles on objects that children often have direct contact with.
One of the CDC's recommendations in response to the Florida outbreak was to advise schools and kindergartens where caterpillars are common in cleaning amusement ride equipment to remove tracks.
If your child develops a rash after encountering a caterpillar, it is usually not serious and can be treated at home. If the reaction is immediate and mild, you should first remove as many tiny hairs that have rubbed against your skin.
To do this, simply wipe the affected skin with a strip of tape, such as a lint roller. Repeat with fresh pieces of masking tape until you have removed as much of the hair as possible.
Then wash your skin with soap and water and apply a mild steroid cream. If the rash causes a burning sensation, applying ice for 10 to 15 minutes can usually help ease the pain.
On the other hand, if there is severe swelling with or without respiratory symptoms, it is better to play it safe and call your pediatrician or go to the nearest emergency center.
Although anaphylaxis is believed to be extremely rare, it can be seen in predisposed individuals after contact with certain caterpillars. In a case published in 2014, a child developed hives and shortness of breath after contact with a caterpillar of a spotted head moth ( Lophocampa maculata ).