Boy, 9, With Eye Pain, Blurred Vision, and Tearing

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Diagnosis and management

Ophthalmic emergencies can affect the visual system and, if left untreated, can lead to permanent vision loss. Affected patients require immediate medical attention and should be referred to an ophthalmologist for follow-up care.

Diagnosis. A thorough history and physical exam are of utmost importance; tiny setae can be easily overlooked if the examiner is not diligent, and the similar symptomatology can lead to misdiagnosis as simple conjunctivitis.3 A visual acuity test and slit-lamp exam are useful for confirmation.

Treatment. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, treatment should consist of mild topical antibiotics and steroids to effectively control infection and inflammation. While topical steroids may be appropriate, local adverse events associated with their use (eg, glaucoma, cataracts) can be problematic. Gentle eye irrigation has been noted by some researchers as contraindicated, while others find it useful to flush out some of the hairs.5,8,9

Most of the visible protruding tarantula hairs can and should be removed under microscopy during slit-lamp exam. Hairs that are buried in the cornea, however, are nearly impossible to remove and pose a threat of further complications, as described. Conservative management with careful observation is therefore recommended. If the patient develops a granuloma, excision—along with a course of systemic steroids and setae removal via vitrectomy—may be needed.9

The good news is that, in many cases, deeper hairs are absorbed without complication, making their removal unnecessary.5 Factors that encourage leaving the setae untouched include a large number of hairs, deep corneal penetration, lack of patient tolerance for the procedure, and risk for perforation.3

More invasive treatments (eg, laser photocoagulation, intraocular surgery) to remove offending hairs are possible, but literature on the outcome of these interventions is limited. One report to date used argon laser photocoagulation to treat endophthalmitis from vitreous hairs.10 The laser can fragment the hairs so that they lose their barbed characteristic and cannot penetrate deeper.6

Follow-up. Close follow-up is advised, and patients should be educated on the importance of medication compliance and return visits for reevaluation. Given the potential dangers of handling these spiders, tarantula owners should be advised to use protective gloving and goggles.2,5,8,9


The case patient was sent to an ophthalmologist on day 1. Proparacaine was placed in his right eye, and all of the superficial tarantula hairs were removed using 25- and 30-gauge needles with jeweler forceps under slit-lamp microscopy. Most of the hairs were removed from the superior cornea; fewer were found in the paracentral and inferior regions of the cornea. Approximately five hairs in the paracentral area of the cornea were embedded in the midstromal depth and could not be removed. One drop of ciprofloxacin was administered.

The patient was sent home with an eye shield and instructions to use tobramycin/dexamethasone eye drops (qid in his right eye) and avoid rubbing the eye. (The eye shield, though not technically necessary, was deemed beneficial to help the patient avoid touching the eye.) He was scheduled to return to the clinic one week later.

On follow-up, a careful exam performed under microscopy showed that the five tarantula hairs were still embedded, and an additional six hairs were found in the deep stroma. Superficial punctate keratitis—an eye disorder caused by epithelial cell death on the surface of the cornea—was noted, but no anterior chamber cells were seen. The patient was instructed to continue using the eye drops as prescribed until finished, then start using loteprednol (tid) and artificial lubricating tears (every 2 h).

He returned to the clinic every two weeks for a total of 10 visits. At the end of the treatment course, the remaining tarantula hairs were unable to be removed. The patient used tapering doses of topical eye steroids and antibiotic drops secondary to flare-up.


Determining the etiology of ophthalmic emergencies is essential to timely and appropriate management. In this case, a recognized but often overlooked cause, tarantula hairs, made the diagnosis more complicated than simple conjunctivitis. When ocular injury is suspected, the provider must obtain an accurate and detailed history along with a thorough physical exam. Since patients must comply with medication regimens to prevent acute and chronic infection, a clear treatment and follow-up plan should be established. With these in place, ophthalmia nodosa caused by urticating setae can be effectively managed.

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