The image does not show a poisonous caterpillar

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Claim: Image shows a poisonous caterpillar that can cause anaphylactic shock in humans

Of the tens of millions of insects that roam the planet, caterpillars are perhaps the most popular. These soft-bodied babies, or larvae, of butterflies and moths have inspired children’s books, and their cocoon metamorphosis is often seen as a symbol of change and transformation.

But a social media post calls for caution against some members of the caterpillar family.

“It’s this time of year again that these caterpillars are back,” reads a graphic shared on Facebook September 29, 2020, which represents a black and white insect both fuzzy and barbed wire. “Don’t touch them, they’re poisonous!”

The post warns that touching these caterpillars will cause your throat to “swell” due to an allergic disease called anaphylactic shock.

The post also includes a picture of a child whose neck and chest are covered with a red rash. The graph does not mention whether contact with the caterpillar can cause skin reactions.

The post has been shared over 9,000 times, most in the past week as it has found new life online. USA TODAY has contacted the Facebook user for comment.

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Although the caterpillar is not named anywhere in the post, experts told USA TODAY that the fuzzy black and white insect is a tussock caterpillar of the hickory, a species native to southern Canada and the northeastern states. -United.

USA TODAY was unable to verify the picture of the child with the rash.

The message is wrong. Hickory tussock moth is not really poisonous. And the alarm over it stretches the truth, experts say.

“(This caterpillar) is nothing spectacular in the sense of something to be alarmed about”, entomologist Akito Kawahara, associate professor and curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, told USA TODAY.

In some people, touching the caterpillar can cause allergic reactions, but anaphylactic shock – the most serious allergic reaction – is usually not one of them.

How do allergic reactions occur?

The post describes the caterpillar as being poisonous and causing a severe allergic reaction. But experts say they’re two different things, and one doesn’t apply here. The caterpillar is not poisonous.

Allergens and the allergic reactions they cause are generally person-to-person specific, unlike poisonous substances, which largely affect many people through a toxic rather than an immune response, dermatopathologist Dr. Eric hossler of Geisinger Medical Laboratories in Pennsylvania explained.

Allergic or hypersensitivity reactions are the result of an overreaction of the immune system to what it perceives as a foreign invader. These invaders are usually environmental substances, like pollen or mold, but they are generally harmless to most people.

“There are many types of allergies, and most of them are very mild,” Hossler told USA TODAY.

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Hypersensitivity can progress to something more serious, like anaphylactic shock (commonly referred to as anaphylaxis by the medical community), when an allergen enters the body directly, Hossler explained.

“(These reactions) can become more serious. … For example, a child is stung by a bee and the venom causes swelling, difficulty breathing and a drop in blood pressure, that would be anaphylaxis”, a-t- he declares.

The caterpillar shown is not poisonous, contact does not result in anaphylaxis

Hickory tassel moth caterpillars are not themselves poisonous, experts say. Handling them can cause skin irritation, but nothing like anaphylaxis.

“The hairs (of the caterpillar) cause serious dermatological reactions in some individuals.… It is not really a toxin or a venom in the normal sense of the term”, David Wagner, an entomologist and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, told USA TODAY. “It’s more like a pretty serious allergen for some people.”

Hossler agreed, saying the insect’s hairs contain an irritant that can cause a reaction in some people, usually a very mild skin irritation in the form of an itchy rash that fades after a day. or two.

What makes the hairs particularly annoying is that they are barbed wire, a defensive mechanism against potential predators, explained Kawahara and Wagner. Once the small beards have lodged in the skin – even in the eyes in some cases – you usually need tweezers or something similar to get them out.

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However, even developing a rash after contact is quite rare, said Hossler, who has seen cases associated with the caterpillar.

“A lot of people handle these caterpillars and other related caterpillars and have no reaction at all,” he said. “You almost have to crush it or rub it on your arm to get a reaction … I picked up a lot and never had any problems.”

The development of anaphylaxis is also extremely rare, Hossler added.

He said he was aware of a report of a case where a hickory tussock caterpillar caused anaphylaxis, but generally, even if children put the caterpillar in their mouths, the worst reaction they had had was irritation of the tongue or mouth, not anaphylaxis.

“It’s theoretically possible (to get anaphylaxis), but if that did happen, it would be exceptionally rare,” Hossler said.

Our rating: Partly false

Based on our research, we are evaluating the claim that one image shows a poisonous caterpillar that can cause anaphylactic shock in humans to be PARTLY FALSE. Experts say the insect shown, the hickory tussock caterpillar, is not poisonous, but its hairs can cause allergic reactions in some people, especially with excessive contact. Anaphylactic shock, a rare but severe allergic reaction, is exceptionally rare compared to this caterpillar.

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