Soothing a browntail moth caterpillar rash

My friend Jackie decided to sit under some oak trees and this is what happened to her. She posted about her plight on Facebook:

“Browntail moth rash is REAL! Real painful, real itchy, real gross and all over my upper arm/pit/and back and I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and the browntail moth [caterpillar] hairs went right through the fabric.”

I got the remedy

She said Cortisone 10 cream helped, but not a lot, and she had to work hard not to scratch. Several people responded with sympathy and remedies she might try.

I also shared her story on Facebook and got more advice. I decided to post the various remedies here on the Catching Health blog in case someone else was suffering. Here they are:

  • Whoa! Maybe a baking soda poultice?
  • We used a paste of baking soda and witch hazel and just leave it on the affected area for 5-10 minutes, 3X/day.
  • Is nasty stuff. got on neck and shoulders, had one on my arm and washed with Dawn and water, really seems to help.
  • Sounds weird but, try Banixx wound cream. You get it from a horse or dogs supply. It helps things heal much faster.
  • Coastal Pharmacy makes a spray that I have heard really helps the itching.
  • You can also make a compound at home of Benadryl cream, hydrocortisone cream, aloe and witch hazel. I made a batch every night and used a cotton ball to apply to all the areas affected. I applied several times a day for the severe itching. It’s awful to be exposed to these caterpillars. You don’t know you have been infected with the hairs till the severe rash appears.
  • If this is a generalized allergic reaction (hives rather than a rash), she may need to see a doctor for treatment. And if at any time her tongue swells or she begins to wheeze, it becomes an emergency. I had a patient once who got body wide hives from a caterpillar bite, and he needed emergency treatment for the allergic reaction he had.
  • How about Benedryl for rash?
    • Another person responded: yes it is good for itching, but don’t use both the spray and the pills. One or the other.
  • I have a terrible reaction to browntail. I would recommend Sarna which is a lotion you can get at the drugstore, or the prescription Browntail spray remedy that Kennebec Pharmacy compounds. She needs to soothe it, and not scratch or rub it. She might even have to bandage it lightly to keep her hands off it. Increasing the skin irritation by rubbing leads to infection. Also maybe an oral antihistamine will help?
  • This works for me! I had tiny rashes though:
    • I learned how to make an effective treatment from a pharmacist at Walgreen’s. You need a small Tupperware dish, cotton balls, a bottle of Witch Hazel, a tube of hydrocortisone cream, and Benadryl cream. You squeeze out half of the tubes for both creams and then add witch hazel until you have the consistency of calamine lotion. Then apply to the area with a cotton ball. You can use this four times a day.

Browntail moth caterpillars

Photo Courtesy Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention

Feeling better

Two pieces of good news: Jackie feels better and browntail moth caterpillars are only active from April to June so hopefully, the worst is over as far as rashes go. The hairs are still toxic throughout the summer but according to the Maine CDC,  they get washed into the soil and are less of a problem over time.

The reason people develop rashes is that there is not only a toxin in the caterpillar hairs but they are also barbed and become embedded in the skin which adds to the irritation. The rash usually lasts for a few hours to several days, but can last for several weeks for some unlucky people. Inhaling the hairs can also cause respiratory problems.

More information

I found some recent newspaper articles that have more information about what the caterpillars are not only doing to people, but also to our trees.

Moth Infestation Creates Real-Life ‘Horror Film’ For Midcoast Mainers

Browntail caterpillar woes hit lake area in Camden this year

211 Maine now available for Browntail Moth questions

This is from the Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County:

All About Browntail Moth Caterpillars

Don’t miss a thing! Sign up to receive an email when I post something new on Catching Health.

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.