Remedies and relief for the browntail moth caterpillar rash

How to stop the infernal itching caused by brown tail moth caterpillar

Mon, 06/22/2020 - 1:15pm

Spring/Summer 2020 is worse for the brown tail moth infestation than even the year before say pharmacists, entolomogists, and particularly the victims in the Midcoast, who are suffering from the poison-ivy-like itchy rash.

Tom Schmeelk, an entomologist with the Maine Forest Service told Maine Public, “Infestations have been getting worse since 2015.”

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry suggests wet vacuuming (with a HEPA filter) the caterpillars, and in a couple of weeks, the pupae. Then, hose down your field or lawn with water to keep the toxic hairs from floating up into the environment.

Wear personal protection around browntail moth areas and keep your skin covered. Take a cool shower after working in an infested area. This will help wash away any hairs on your body.

The problem, according to The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, is that the caterpillars’ tiny barbed hairs are toxic and go airborne. They can cause a skin rash and respiratory difficulties, which can last anywhere from a few hours to several weeks. The hairs can remain toxic for one to three years. And anytime you mow your lawn or a strong wind kicks up it stirs up the hairs and cause a reaction for months, even after the caterpillars become moths. The greatest risk for exposure to the toxic caterpillar hairs is between April and July.

While the infestation is itself a whole other topic for another story, Midcoast residents have been feeling the itch and have been sharing their stories on social media. There’s a lot of information out there on how to provide relief from the bumpy rash.

Home remedies provided by PenBay Pilot readers have included:

  • Wipe the area with rubbing alcohol then applied calamine lotion and Benadryl extra strength gel
  • Cucumber witch hazel body mist
  • Purell
  • Advil and ice packs
  • Bite Balm at Fresh off The Farm
  • Vick’s Vapor Rub and Witch Hazel
  • Benedryl amd hydrocortisone cream: same amount. Mix with Witch Hazel
  • Sarna, Benadryl cream, witch hazel and calamine...Lidocaine lotion
  • 1/4 cup witch hazel, 1/2 tube hydrocortisone cream, 1/2 tube of diphenhydramine cream, 1/4 tube aspercream or Lidocaine cream. Place all in plastic spray bottle and mix. Apply twice a day

Nita Nuhaj, Pharamcist at Kennebec Pharmacy + Home Care in Rockport said: “I have to admit, this year, we are seeing a lot more inquiries for itch relief due to the brown tail moth caterpillar compared to other years. If I had to place a number, I’d say we’re getting about 40-50 per day asking about it.”

The compound Kennebec Pharmacy doesn’t have a pharmaceutical name: it is just referred to as the brown tail moth spray or lotion.

“We make a compound mainly targeted to relieve the itching symptoms of the brown tail moth caterpillar hairs,” she said. “People coming to us with a clinical case of brown tail moth symptoms are looking for instant relief.”

Meredith Downing, pharmacist of Coastal Pharmacy & Wellness, in Portland, said she is seeing approximately 10 people call a day about getting relief from the itching, ranging from mild to severe. 

“If someone has repeated exposure to the toxic hairs, the rash gets worse,” she said.  “The compounds we make here are available with a prescription. Most insurances don’t cover compound prescriptions, but the spray and lotion run about $50 to $60. They contain a steroid, an antihistamine and a topical analgesic, which numbs the itch. It lasts awhile. Most people will stick it in their refrigerator after a season and use it again next season.”

Downing added: “All of those things in the compound are also available over-the-counter strength such as tubes of hydrocortisone, Benadryl and Lanacaine, which is a little less expensive,” but as Nuhaj commented, “Not that over the counter remedies are not effective,but they probably won’t provide as much of instant relief as the compound spray.”

Downing said the spray is best for a widespread rash on the body, but the lotion is better if the rash appears on one’s face.

Thomas Edge, a pharmacist for Pen Bay Medical Center, also said the pharmacy is creating its own gel compound. “The Pharmacy at Pen Bay Medical Center will have it's own prescription-only remedy, an anti-itch gel made with a topical steroid, antihistamine, and three topical analgesics, available for $25," he said.

Both Downing and Nuhaj said they haven’t yet encountered anyone come to the pharmacy who has been respiratory issues, but that if one does experience these symptoms, the  serious and warrants a visit to a primary care physician or urgent care.

For more resources  on the brown tail moth caterpillar health concern visit: Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention

Kay Stephens can be reached at