Treating Urticating Hair
(or Why Handling Tarantulas is NOT advised)
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.
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
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.
are currently six distinct identified types of urticating hairs (a few
examples appear below) and
these are also of different sizes.
Hairs of Brachypelma smithi
(Mexican Red-Knee Tarantula)
hair (type 2) with inset showing end normally
loosely attached to spider. Total length ca.
210um (0.210mm). Microscope magnification x440.
of barbed distal end. Magnification ca.
(ca. 1/5th ) of type 1 hair showing coarse barbs
along its full length. Magnification ca. x570
of barbed distal end of type 1 hair. Magnification
"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."
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.
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
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
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.
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:
Why? Urticating Hairs.
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.