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Maine CDC, Forest Service urge people to take precautions against browntail moth caterpillars

The caterpillars are dark brown with white stripes along the sides and two red-orange dots on the back. Younger caterpillars may lack the white stripes.
Credit: AP
In a May 2016 photo provided by the Maine Forest Service, browntail caterpillars feed in Maine. The caterpillars’ hairs can cause a painful rash in humans. State scientists say it’s difficult to control the spread of the bugs, which has been aided by dry weather. (Maine Forest Servic ACFvia AP)

MAINE, USA — The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC), Maine Forest Service (MFS), and 211 Maine remind the public to take precautions now that browntail moth caterpillars are emerging from their webs in trees. The caterpillars are covered with tiny hairs, which are shed and can become airborne, potentially causing a skin reaction like poison ivy and trouble breathing if inhaled.

Many Mainers are spending increased time outdoors for recreation and yard maintenance during the coronavirus pandemic. This may put them at increased risk of contact with these toxic hairs. According to the Maine CDC, counties in southern, midcoast, down east, and south-central Maine are at some risk of browntail moth exposure.

The greatest risk for exposure to the toxic hairs is from now through July when the moths are active. The hairs can land anywhere, including on trees, gardens, lawns, and decks. The hairs remain toxic in the environment for one to three years, and can be stirred up by activities like mowing, raking, and sweeping.

Here are some steps the Maine CDC recommends Mainers can take to protect themselves from browntail moth hairs when performing activities outdoors that may stir them up:

  •  Choose damp days or wet vegetation with a hose. The moisture helps keep the hairs from becoming airborne.
  • Cover face with a respirator, if available, and goggles.Take extra care to avoid activities that stir up hairs.
  • If respirators are difficult to obtain, perform outdoor activities with a cloth face covering, which may reduce the risk of inhaling caterpillar hairs.
  • Wear long sleeves, pants, and a hat and tightly secure clothing around the neck, wrists, and ankles.
  • Take cool showers and change clothes after outdoor activities in infested areas.
  • Dry laundry inside during June and July to avoid hairs embedding into clothing.

The Maine CDC said most affected individuals develop a localized rash that lasts from a few hours to several days. In more sensitive individuals, the rash can be severe and last for weeks. Respiratory distress from inhaling the hairs can be serious. The rash and difficulty breathing result from both a chemical reaction to a toxin in the hairs and a physical irritation as the barbed hairs become embedded in the skin and airways.

There is no specific treatment for the rash or breathing problems caused by exposure to browntail moth hairs. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and eliminating ongoing exposure.

The Maine CDC said browntail moth caterpillars are easy to identify. They are dark brown with white stripes along the sides and two red-orange dots on the back. Younger caterpillars may lack the white stripes.

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