Two local women recently found themselves in the emergency room after each thought they were experiencing heart failure following a brush with a seemingly innocent, fuzzy little caterpillar. The puss caterpillar, known to Texans as the “asp,” caught each woman off guard and despite the fact that a local entomologist said the critter is common in these parts, neither had experienced the venomous creature before.
“I am 80 years old and that was the first time I had ever seen one,” Huckabay area resident Joyce Whitis said.
Whitis was at home two weeks ago, sitting at a picnic table under a tree and “looking across the country” when she felt a horrible sting.
“It stung me on my elbow,” Whitis said. “You can still see the mark.”
Whitis immediately killed the asp and reached for a little snake oil.
“I sprayed WD-40 on it (the wound),” Whitis said. “That will usually stop the sting with other insects like wasps.”
But the tried and tested treatment offered no relief and Whitis continued to suffer for hours. After a sleepless night she went to the emergency room, where she was given a cortisone injection and Benadryl.
“I have never felt pain like that,” Whitis said, a point with which another bite victim, Sally Caja can agree.
Caja also ended up in the ER moments after the sting, which she also sustained outside of her home. Caja grabbed an empty cup and took the strange looking caterpillar along for the ride. Medical professionals confirmed the identity of the common culprit.
Caja did not receive treatment at the hospital and went home and “googled” a couple of remedies, including one that suggested putting tape on the site and pulling it off to remove embedded hairs, which she said didn’t offer much relief.
Caja said the pain lasted for about 12 hours. Although she has suffered some fairly severe burns and broken bones in the past, Caja said she had never felt anything as painful as the asp’s venomous embrace.
“I thought I was having a heart attack,” Caja said.
Both women said they felt intense pain in their right arm and heavy, oppressive pain in their chests.
Dr. David Kattes, entomologist and professor at Tarleton State University, said the asp is indigenous to the area and has established its habitat across Central Texas. Kattes also said fall is prime time for the puss caterpillar.
“This time of year is the worst - they are really bad in the fall,” Kattes said.
The asp is a moth larvae and grows to be a flannel moth, which Kattes said people will rarely experience. Unlike their crawling counterparts, the moths are not easily differentiated from other night flyers.
Kattes said the caterpillars are found on various vegetation, but prefer hardwood trees like oaks and certain fruit trees. They are not drawn to evergreens, like pine trees and don’t prefer mesquites, which are most commonly found in West Texas.
Kattes said the seemingly fuzzy caterpillars grow to about 1 inch long and are furry in appearance, are completely covered by thick tan to grayish-white hairs. Among the long body hairs are shorter spines that discharge venom. The hairs are brittle and often break off on contact.
While the sting is not fatal to most, Kattes said children and the elderly could succumb to the venom and should seek immediate medical attention. For other patients, he recommended topical creams like hydrocortisone or Benadryl.
As far as protecting yourself, Kattes said “there is not a thing we can do except avoid them,” and suggested staying away from hardwood trees and avoid low hanging limbs in the fall.