Internet Journal of Medical Toxicology

Pharyngeal Irritation After Eating Cooked Tarantula

Stephen J. Traub, MD
Robert S. Hoffman, MD
Lewis S. Nelson MD
New York City Poison Control Center and
NYU/Bellevue Hospital and Medical Center
New York, NY USA

Int J Med Toxicol 2001; 4(5): 40


Abstract

Introduction: Certain species of tarantulas have "urticating hairs" on their abdomen that are used for self-defense. When exposed to these hairs, humans are reported to develop both dermal and ocular irritation. Some people consider tarantula a delicacy, and eat them. Under these circumstances, a hot fire or blowtorch is recommended to destroy these "urticating hairs" prior to consumption. We report several cases of pharyngeal irritation that probably resulted from the ingestion of poorly prepared tarantulas. Case Series: Several persons shared an exotic dinner that included batter-dipped, deep-fried Chilean rose-haired tarantula. After eating the tarantula dish, many people complained of tingling in the mouth and throat. There were no symptoms of systemic allergic reaction in any patient. Symptoms did not develop in dinner guests who did not ingest tarantula. Evaluation of a remaining cooked tarantula by an entomologist confirmed the presence of urticating hairs on the spider's abdomen. Conclusion: Tarantula hairs, which have previously been reported to cause both dermal and ocular irritation in humans, appeared to cause pharyngeal irritation when consumed as part of a prepared dinner. Although other causes of symptoms could not be rigorously excluded, we conclude that cooked tarantula is a potentially irritating food.

Introduction

Figure 1 - couresy of Mr. Jon Fouskaris.
Figure 1 - courtesy of Mr. Jon Fouskaris (www.petbugs.com)

Tarantulas (Figure 1), members of the Therphosidae family, are hairy arachnids which are commonly kept as pets in the United States. Tarantulas possess "urticating hairs" on their abdomen, which is part of the spider's defense mechanism. When startled or threatened, tarantulas place their hind legs on their abdomen and begin to vibrate. This process, referred to as "bombarding" (1), projects thousands of hairs at the aggressor. The supply of hairs (approximately 1 million per spider) is replenished every 12 to 18 months when the spider molts (2).

Tarantulas are reported to cause both dermal and ocular irritation. Pharyngeal irritation is previously unreported. We describe a series of patients who developed this symptom after the ingestion of cooked tarantula.

Case Series

A number of persons belonging to a social club gathered for a dinner that included a dish of cooked tarantula. Several dinner guests, all of whom ingested the tarantula, developed tingling in the oropharynx. This symptom did not develop in those who did not eat this dish. No patient had symptoms of a systemic allergic reaction. Several friends who developed symptoms contacted a mutual friend, who was a physician, by telephone. This physician contacted the New York City Poison Control Center. We suggested that the symptoms might be due to the "urticating hairs" present on the tarantulas abdomen, and recommended emergency department evaluation if symptoms were progressing. Because all of the patients had symptoms that were stable or resolving, none opted to present for treatment. All of the patients subsequently did well.

The case was referred to the New York City Department of Health Environmental Investigation Unit for further inquiry. Inspection of one of the remaining cooked tarantulas by a trained entomologist revealed the persistence of urticating hairs on the spider's abdomen. These hairs are presumed to have caused the patient's symptoms.

Discussion

Tarantulas are reported to cause dermal irritation. In a case report, a male arachnologist rubbed a tarantula against the inner aspect of his arm; within 30 minutes, he developed itchy and edematous papules at the site. The area was biopsied, and microscopic examination of the skin confirmed the presence of embedded tarantula hairs (2). Another author reported a papular dermatitis after handling a tarantula; in his case, immediate itching and pain was followed by extensive exfoliation of the areas which came into contact with the arachnid (3).

A more commonly reported sequela of handling tarantulas is ophthalmia nodosa. Originally coined as a term to describe the ocular irritation that occurred after exposure to caterpillar hairs, ophthalmia nodosa is now used to refer to the ocular reaction to any type of vegetable or insect hairs, including that of tarantulas (4). This reaction usually takes the form of granulomatous reactions in the cornea in and around the area in which the hairs are embedded (1,5,6). In addition to corneal effects, edema of the eyelid (7), conjunctivitis (1,8), anterior chamber inflammation (9,10), and retinitis (1,10) are reported.

The above symptoms, particularly ophthalmia nodosa, are most commonly encountered in the United States where tarantulas are kept as pets. Tarantulas, however, can also be consumed as food. During preparation, the "urticating hairs" on the abdomen are removed; presumably, cooks and chefs are aware that tarantula hairs are potentially irritating. One way to remove the hairs is to treat the spiders with a blowtorch, as was done for this dinner (Figure 2). The tarantulas may then be prepared in any number of ways, including deep-frying (Figure 3). Because subsequent evaluation of some remaining cooked specimens from this event revealed that not all of the hairs had been removed, we suspect that those persons who developed tingling in their oropharynx after the ingestion of tarantula did so due to exposure to these "urticating hairs". The lack of symptoms in those patients who did not ingest this dish suggests that this tarantula dish was the culprit. The lack of systemic symptoms in any patient suggests that the symptoms were not due to a toxin or allergic reaction.

Figure 2 - courtesy of Mr. Steven Nagiewicz.
Figure 2 - courtesy of Mr. Steven Nagiewicz (www.explorers.org)

Figure 3
Figure 3

Summary

Tarantula hairs have been previously reported to cause irritation of both the skin and the eye. In this case series, pharyngeal irritation occurred in a number of persons who ingested cooked tarantula as part of a prepared dinner. We speculate that their symptoms were due to "urticating hairs" present on the abdomen that were not removed during the preparation process. Although other causes of these patients' symptoms could not be rigorously excluded, it appears most likely that symptoms resulted from remaining "urticating hairs" on the abdomens of the tarantulas. Therefore, improperly prepared tarantula may be an irritating food. Physicians who treat patients who consume tarantulas should be aware of this potential adverse effect.

References:

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  10. Shrum KR, Robertson DM, Baratz KH, Casperson TJ, Rostvold JA et al. Keratitits and retinitis secondary to tarantula hair. Arch Ophthamol 1999;117:1096-1097.

Int J Med Toxicol 2001; 4(5): 40

This article is located at http://www.ijmt.net/4_5/4_5_40.html