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Treating Urticating Hair Allergic Reactions
(or Why Handling Tarantulas is NOT advised)

by Martin Overton



Let me just make the following very clear:

The opinions expressed here are my own personal opinions and I know there will some people that will disagree with the opinions I express in this article, however I am receiving a constant stream of e-mails from those suffering from handling their 'pet' New-World Tarantula.

Furthermore, the advice I give here is mine and I am not a physician, doctor or in any way, shape or form a member of a medical profession. 

Therefore, I would strongly suggest that any serious or long lasting effects suffered from anyone handling tarantulas that have urticating hairs, that they should seek proper medical advice, preferably from a practitioner that has knowledge of urticating hairs and their effects.

The Problem:

Here's a typical e-mail from a worried parent who's child has just handled their/or a friends 'pet' tarantula:

"My daughter was handling a pet tarantula and  her hand has several raised reddened areas. In the last day her fingers  have raised bumps along them. Her hand is very itchy and sore. Is  there any way to treat this..."

In this case the reaction was quite mild, once in a while some poor unfortunate person suffers from more severe reactions, which can in a very few cases, be as serious as anaphylactic shock. There are also documented cases of partial/temporary blindness due to urticating hairs getting into the eyes. Some (few) people appear to have no adverse reaction at all to some species of tarantulas urticating hairs.

What are Urticating Hairs?

Urticating (or irritating/stinging) hairs are a very effective defence mechanism (in addition to the venom) used against attackers by Tarantulas mainly found throughout the Americas (the so-called New World Tarantulas). These hairs which cover the abdomen, in their thousands, come off very easily with a simple rub of one or more of the tarantulas legs. 

The cloud of hairs kicked at a potential attacker will penetrate any exposed skin and cause symptoms from mild to severe allergic reactions. If they get into the nose and the other airways then a burning/stinging sensation is common along with constant uncontrollable sneezing and even wheezing or restricted breathing.  If they get into the eyes then the eyes will water uncontrollably and the hairs may even cause temporary blindness. This, of course usually puts off the would be attacker, as all thoughts of  an eight-legged snack tends to be less of a burning desire.

The urticating hairs on a tarantula aren't hollow and loaded with toxins, as they sometimes are with other creatures that use urticating hairs for defence. The tarantula urticating hairs appear to irritate due to the structure of the hair itself;  so it's a mechanical irritation rather than chemical defence. 

Tarantulas are not the only creature to use this defence mechanism it is also used by Moths and Butterflies, mainly in their caterpillar stage of development. However, a number of them use toxin loaded hollow urticating hairs and therefore can be accused of carrying chemical weapons which by their nature tend to cause more severe and painful reactions.

There are currently six distinct identified types of urticating hairs (a few examples appear below) and these are also of different sizes. 

Urticating Hairs of Brachypelma smithi
(Mexican Red-Knee Tarantula)

Entire hair (type 2) with inset showing end normally loosely attached to spider. Total length ca. 210um (0.210mm). Microscope magnification x440.
Detail of barbed distal end. Magnification ca. x2,400
Part (ca. 1/5th ) of type 1 hair showing coarse barbs along its full length. Magnification ca. x570
Detail of barbed distal end of type 1 hair. Magnification ca. x3,100

"Two types of urticating hair are found on the Mexican Red-Knee Tarantula. Type 1, 1mm long with coarse barbs along its full length and type 2, just 0.2mm long, very ornate but equally as unpleasant."

 

The Solution:

I strongly advise against handling tarantulas as most that are kept as pets have urticating (irritating) hairs that cause a rash on skin that is exposed to them through handling or a tarantulas kicking hairs in defence. Please be aware that this is a natural defence mechanism for most tarantulas from the Americas (most New World species). 

Some tarantula societies also feel, quite rightly, that careless and uneducated handling of tarantulas can only be damaging to our hobby and could ultimately, in the current 'political correctness culture' be seen as a 'good' reason to limit or ban these fascinating creatures. This would mean that only zoos and other licensed and policed/educational establishments would be allowed to keep them.

Too Late....

So you've already handled the tarantula and now you have a rash on your hands or other extremities, and you want some advice on how to treat the constant and painful itching?

There are remedies that you can use, however I would suggest that if you are concerned, that you contact a suitable doctor that has knowledge of urticating hairs and their effects as occasionally severe reactions do occur and may require unusual treatment. An example of a product that can help is Piriton (an anti-allergy tablet that contains chlorpheniramine maleate Ph.Eur. 4mg).

You may find that creams or tablets that contain anti-histamine may well help as they combat the excess histamine that is being  produced. Scratching the effected area may cause the hairs to go deeper into the layers of the skin.

You may find that the rash will subside in a few days, however I would suggest that you speak with a doctor or pharmacist and explain the condition as they can offer the best advice. 

Suggestions for the future.....

1. I would also strongly suggest that tarantulas are not handled.

I don't make this suggestion lightly as I have been keeping tarantulas for over 13 years, and have never handled my tarantulas, and have experienced the effects of  urticating hairs personally, both on the limbs and in the airways (nose, throat, lungs). I have only experienced temporary effects (2-3 days of rash). However, with some species the effects can last  significantly longer, sometimes re-erupting months or years after the initial exposure (worst case scenario). 

2a. If you must handle them (for a good reason, not just 'cos it's cool, or that it scares your sister/bother/friend) then ensure that your hands are very thoroughly washed  (with soap and water) after each and every handling episode.

2b. Don't scratch any part of of your body while you are handling it, especially your face or rub your eyes as you'll be sorry you did.

2c. If you do get a rash, then DON'T scratch it as this will force the hairs deeper into the skin and may in some cases cause secondary complications such as infection and permanent scaring.

2d. NEVER, let a tarantula walk on your face or any other sensitive areas. A rash may be the least of your worries, try explaining to a doctor/nurse/paramedic how you got bitten, or have a severe allergic reaction 'there' by/from a tarantula.

Conclusion:

Unless you have a very good reason for handling tarantulas, then don't, as it isn't big and it isn't clever, you could be left with more than you bargained for.

Just Say NO!

Other Pages on Urticating Hairs:

Urticating Hairs
Why? Urticating Hairs.
Tarantulas Dangerousness
.

All images copyright Andrew Syred 2000, used with permission.

Andrew Syred has informed me that if these pictures are used elsewhere without his express permission then legal action may follow, you have been warned!

I would welcome  feedback on this article,  as long as it is constructive, be it for or against, or whatever.


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