The itch was insane – insane! We had an infestation of browntail moths, and everyone was falling victim to the rash.
This article covers how to treat browntail moth rash, and while it won’t be a subject for everyone, for those of us living in affected areas in Maine, this information could make a huge difference. But let’s start from the beginning…
What Are Browntail Moths?
The browntail moth (Euproctis chrysorrhoea) is native to Europe with large populations dating back to the 1500s. It was accidentally introduced to the United States in the 1980s, and they have hit Maine rather hard.
In their moth form, they look almost angelic…
But make no mistake about it, the moth itself is borne from demon caterpillars…
In their caterpillar state, they can be identified by 2 distinct red dots near their tail and their near-lethal hairs. They grow up to 1.5″ in length.
According to the Maine Division of Disease Surveillance:
The browntail moth caterpillar has tiny poisonous hairs that cause dermatitis similar to poison ivy on sensitive individuals. People may develop dermatitis from direct contact with the caterpillar or indirectly from contact with airborne hairs. The hairs become airborne from either being dislodged from the living or dead caterpillar or they come from cast skins with the caterpillar molts. Most people affected by the hairs develop a localized rash that will last for a few hours up to several days but on some sensitive individuals the rash can be severe and last for several weeks. The rash results from both a chemical reaction to a toxin in the hairs and a physical irritation as the barbed hairs become embedded in the skin. Respiratory distress from inhaling the hairs can be serious.
This year the outbreak has been really bad, moving north from the coast, some towns even declaring a public emergency and seeking expert help.
My Browntail Moth Rash
I had my first browntail moth rash about 3 years prior while along the coast of Maine, where they were in greater numbers. They have moved inland this year, however – big time!
The caterpillars, and the subsequent rash when exposed to them, has been the talk all over town. Everyone seems to be getting it.
The Encounter Site
I had plans of building a concrete block outdoor firepit/cook station at the edge of the yard where we could entertain guests and experiment with cooking different dishes over an open fire. What’s more, I was going to document the entire thing for an article here.
My plans were quickly thwarted, however, when I encountered not one, not two, not three, but a bazillion browntail moths blanketing the site. The arrows in the picture below point to their location.
I flicked them off concrete blocks with my gloves, I stepped on them with my boots, and by then I should have none better. After about an hour I looked up above me and saw them devouring the leaves of the trees directly overhead, surrounding me everywhere.
I stopped what I was doing at that moment, but it was too late.
I managed to salvage some content from my project to write a less exciting What do cinderblocks weigh? article, but that’s all I was able to salvage. The damage had been done – I was about to begin scratching like never before.
The Rash Itself
The rash was unbearable. The itch was crazy. If I had to live with it on a permanent basis I would probably go mad and end up in a straightjacket to stop myself from scratching my skin entirely off.
The picture at the opening of this article was of my right wrist. The picture below is of my left hand. I had this rash to different degrees from my neck to my knees, scratching here, scratching there, scratching here and there all over again.
I’ve never had a poison ivy rash. Given that I have spent countless hours outside from childhood to adulthood and never had it, I’ve assumed I have some natural resilience to it, because I most certainly must have encountered it on more than one occasion.
No such luck with browntail moth rash, however. In fact, people all around are getting it simply by going outside. The caterpillars’ hairs can land on outdoor furniture, on cars, and even float in the air.
As bad as the rash was, I guess I should be thankful I didn’t encounter breathing or other respiratory issues like some people do. One person I know had to visit the emergency room to be treated with steroids.
There is no condition-specific treatment for browntail moth rash. This was confirmed by my pharmacist neighbor, and it’s why so many people flock to over-the-counter solutions, most of which have little positive effect on the rash.
I wasn’t the only one looking for help. My wife went to the pharmacy section of Target to find something – anything – and encountered a scene reminiscent of looking for toilet paper during COVID-19 – empty shelves!
By going from store to store, my wife was able to find 3 of the 4 ingredients we sought. Fortunately, we already had the 4th ingredient (Benadryl cream) already on hand, a prepper win!
The Best Browntail Moth Rash Treatment
The best browntail moth rash treatment is 1/4 cup witch hazel, 1/2 tube hydrocortisone cream, 1/2 tube of diphenhydramine cream (Benadryl), and 1/4 tube Aspercream or Lidocain cream. This is based on medical advise and my personal experience testing other solutions. Mix it together and apply liberally to the affected areas.
We wanted more ingredients to have on hand in case the kids got a bad dose of the rash, but because the ingredients were sold out at area stores, we went to Amazon to order it all. Here are the Amazon buy links:
I call this “my” treatment as though I own it, but it’s just the treatment I used, as found online, as assembled by my wife. It’s the same treatment being advised by the area hospital, and the only thing that I found to work, albeit temporarily.
Showers provided some relief from the itching. On the worst day I took 5 showers. People say to take a cool shower, but I found a raging hot shower to provide a twisted sense of pleasure/pain, the very hot water providing an scratch-type relief without actually scratching the area.
I let the hot water pour onto the rash, standing there until my skin turned deep red from the heat. Then I turned the water to very cool, soaped up, dried myself off, and applied the mixture outlined above.
This provided the only relief I could get, but it was limited to about 4 hours. Then it wore off and the itch would come back with a vengeance. I repeated the process each time for 3 days.
Other Treatments to Try
If you have the rash and don’t have ready access to the above ingredients to make a browntail rash treatment, there are other “solutions” that people advise:
- Wipe the rash with rubbing alcohol and then apply calamine lotion
- Try ice packs
- Vick’s Vapor Rub
- Sarna anti-itch cream
- Desitin diaper rash cream
Calamine lotion on its own did absolutely nothing for me.
Other advice includes making a spreadable paste of baking soda and witch hazel and apply it to the rash. Wash it off after 5 or 10 minutes and repeat 2 times a day. I have not tried this so I can’t speak to its effectiveness.
You can experiment with most any over the counter products with anti-itch qualities, but I think you will find most fall short. In the end, your best form of relief is going to be time.
Helpful Hints to Avoid Contact
You know the saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The caterpillars are most active between April and July.
Here are some prevention tips:
- Avoid areas that are heavily infested by the caterpillars.
- Change clothes after going outside and put those clothes in the dirty laundry.
- Take a shower after working outdoors.
- Wear a masks and goggles if you must enter infested areas.
- If you hang your laundry out to dry, avoid doing so during months the caterpillars are active.
- Wear pants, long-sleeve shirts, and a hat when outside.
- Hose down outdoor furniture, cars, the house, etc.
- Do yardwork after or during a rain when hairs are less likely to become airborne.
I hope my experience helps others who have fallen victim to these little hair monsters. Between these caterpillars and the infestation of ticks, going outside in the spring is proving to be a dangerous endeavor.
Have you encountered these little monsters? What’d you do for the itch? Let us know in the comments section.