A hairy situation

Tips and tricks for avoiding the brown-tail’s signature itch
Photo by Holland Haverkamp

A hairy situation

Tips and tricks for avoiding the brown-tail’s signature itch

Throughout much of the late spring and summer, brown-tail moth caterpillars shed barbed toxic hairs that can cause a painful rash similar to poison ivy. Since detached hairs retain their toxicity for years, reactions due to loose hairs in the environment are possible at other times throughout the year. Symptoms of the “brown-tail moth itch” range from bumpy red patches of itchy, blistered skin to a severe respiratory reaction, particularly in people with asthma. Symptoms often appear within hours of exposure.

The following precautions offered by the Maine Forest Service may help to reduce the risk of exposure for people living in an area occupied by the brown-tail moth.

Precautionary information is provided by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and the Maine Forest Service Division of Forest Health and Monitoring.

  • Avoid heavily infested areas. Look for vacated nests in defoliated trees and shrubs.
  • Keep car and house windows closed. Airborne hairs can settle onto indoor surfaces in high-risk areas.
  • Wear a respirator, protective eyewear and cover exposed skin. Particularly on dry, windy days or when performing tasks, such as yard work or gardening, that may stir up hairs.
  • Do yard work on damp days or wet the areas you’re working in. Moisture helps keep the hairs from becoming airborne.
  • Avoid drying laundry outside. Blowing hairs can attach to line-drying clothing and cause rashes when clothes are worn.
  • If exposed to hairs, immediately wash clothes and take a cool shower. Exposed clothing should be washed alone in hot water. Exposed skin can be gently scrubbed with a rough cloth to help remove embedded hairs.
  • Remove nests from infested trees. Overwinter nests should only be removed and destroyed during the winter or very early spring when the young caterpillars are dormant. Some arborists offer nest removal services for nests high in tall trees.
  • Consult your physician if you develop a severe reaction. While there is no immediate cure, there are treatments focused on relieving symptoms of severe reactions. Check with your doctor or local pharmacist for options available in your area. Over-the-counter antihistamines and calamine lotion also can bring relief.

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