If You Live in These States, Beware of This Dangerous Caterpillar, USDA Says
This bug has the ability to induce respiratory infections, according to the agency.
When we think of the most dangerous insects and bugs, we usually think of spiders, wasps, and ticks. Caterpillars, on the other hand, are pretty much deemed harmless—and most of them are. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is warning about one caterpillar that isn't actually as harmless as it might look. The gypsy moth caterpillar can be found chomping on the leaves of more than 300 different kinds of trees and shrubs, which is a problem for the country's forests. And this pest could be just as dangerous to humans.
According to the USDA, gypsy moth caterpillars can cause both skin rashes and respiratory infections in people who come across them. Rashes are typically contracted through direct contact with the tiny hairs on these caterpillars, also known as setae. But Massachusetts' Reliant Medical Group says you don't necessarily have to come in contact with an actual caterpillar, as their setae can also "be found in soil, tree bark, and silk cocoons."
Margaret Skinner, PhD, an entomologist and researcher with the University of Vermont and its extension program, told CNN that these caterpillars are so dangerous that people shouldn't even touch them (or their eggs) without proper protective gear. Skinner says this includes gloves, masks, and long-sleeve apparel.
The USDA says that gypsy moth caterpillars' egg masses appear covered with yellowish hair, while newly hatched caterpillars are typically black and hairy. As they get older, the caterpillars develop a mottled yellow to gray pattern, but their most distinctive feature is a colored pattern of five pairs of blue dots follow by six pairs of red dots down their backs.
If you think you've come in contact with one of these caterpillars, look out for any related symptoms. According to the Reliant Medical Group, mild to moderate symptoms may include stinging or pain accompanied by "welts, small, fluid-filled sacs, raised red bumps, and patches of red scaly skin," which typically appear within minutes to hours after contact and last for several days. If one of the setae makes contact with any mucous membranes, you could experience more severe respiratory symptoms, like shortness of breath, conjunctivitis, difficulty swallowing, and hay fever—which would require a trip to your doctor.
"Try to remove the hairs as best you can and treat with pain relievers as needed," Reliant Medical Group pediatrician Stacey Maslow, MD, said in a statement. "If any of the more serious side effects start to occur, like shortness of breath, contact your doctor."
The U.S. is currently seeing some of the worst outbreaks of gypsy moth caterpillars this year, Kathy Decker, the manager of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation's forest protection program, told CNN. According to Decker, the COVID pandemic aided the outbreak, as it stopped departments like hers from doing aerial forest inspections due to social distancing regulations. The USDA says current outbreaks are only occurring in 21 states right now. Read on to find out if your state is crawling with these dangerous creatures.