OXFORD — For years browntail moth infestations were a seasonal challenge mostly along Maine’s coast. More recently the invasive moths have spread to inland communities.

The Oxford Hills region is experiencing the consequences of the caterpillars, which can cause painful rashes and swelling, as well as respiratory distress. Many families are finding out the hard way just how disruptive it can be to share their yards with them.

Noelle Curtin of Oxford recently saw it run through her family, with her nursing baby getting the worst of it and sharing it with her.

Noelle Curtin of Oxford holds her son,  Elijah, and daughter Maia, 3. Her three children, including an 8-year-old daughter, have experienced browntail moth caterpillar reactions this summer. Submitted photo

“I didn’t realize you could get the rash from it when we found them on our property last year,” Curtin told said recently. “They were in an oak tree, farther away. But this year they showed up in an oak tree right in our backyard. I had never heard of anybody getting the rash. But this year a couple of my friends have gotten it.”

It is the toxic hairs of the caterpillar that cause serious rashes, and respiratory illness if they happen to be inhaled. The closer the contact, the worse the reaction.

Curtis said her 8-year-old daughter had the first exposure with a rash on her eyelid. Next her 3-year-old developed a mild rash. Neither child was seriously affected.

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But a week later, a caterpillar dropped onto her young son’s pajamas hanging on a laundry line. Not noticing it in the family’s clean clothes, the baby had an immediate reaction when Curtin put him in his PJs.

“It was terrible,” Curtin said. “It was his neck, throat and his eyes. It was so scary. I was holding him to nurse and then go down for a nap. He began to inconsolably scream, and I saw his neck was swelling.”

She found the caterpillar in his pajamas; by then she had gotten the hairs on herself, although she did not start feeling the full effect until the next day.

Curtin was able to treat her rash without medical attention.

“I was watching his throat swell up” right before my eyes, Curtin said. She head to Stephens Memorial Hospital emergency department.

“They were surprised that it caused that bad of a reaction,” she said. “His skin looked like a chemical burn or something. They took pictures of it, I guess for their own records. I guess it’s becoming more prevalent in the area and they want to be prepared.”

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She said her baby had a two-hour stay in the emergency department as doctors monitored his vital signs. But relief to his rash came quickly after they applied hydrocortisone to his affected areas.

Elijah Curtin of Oxford spent two hours at Stephens Memorial Hospital on June 11 after a painful reaction to browntail moth caterpillars. Submitted photo

“It really helped to calm him down,” Curtin said.

She said the emergency room staff suspected caterpillar rash only after she told them he had been exposed. He was also treated with Benadryl. “The treatment worked for him; he was feeling better within 10 minutes.”

According to Rebecca Long with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in South Paris, this is the first year the Oxford County office has fielded a growing number of calls from people coming in contact with browntail moth caterpillars, due to increasing public awareness about the moth’s seasonal cycles as well as rising infestations.

“Browntail moths overwinter as caterpillars in webs at the tips of branches, made from leaves tightly wrapped with white silk,” Long told  said in an email. “Caterpillars emerge from their winter nests in spring to feed and are fully grown by late June. They then form cocoons which the adults emerge from in late July and August. Eggs laid by adult moths quickly emerge in August to feed before forming their winter webs and starting the cycle again.”

Long said most of the calls have come from Norway, South Paris, Oxford and Otisfield. An online map updated by the Maine Forest Services indicates fewer infestations have been noted in West Paris, Waterford and other surrounding towns, indicating the moth’s breeding region is steadily migrating through western Maine. People can track occurrences on Maine Forest Service’s website at maine.maps.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/8f2931a691374ac9853636e71cbb1f40.

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Destroying the caterpillar nests is the only way to eliminate the next year’s cycle and is done during the winter.

An overwintering web of a browntail moth caterpillar hangs on a crab apple tree branch. Maine.gov photo

“In terms of what can be done right now: caterpillars already have their toxic hairs so spraying now won’t do anything to protect you from the hairs,” Long wrote. “Caterpillars can be collected off of surfaces by spraying them off with a hose and collecting them with a wet/dry vacuum with a HEPA filter filled with a few inches of soapy water. Toxic hairs can persist for up to 3 years so dispose of the dead caterpillars carefully. Wear protective gear when working outside where hairs may be present.”

Curtin called a landscaping company in Auburn about removing the moths and was told they are not providing the service during the summer due to the health risks the work poses to their employees. They advised to call them later in the year and schedule removal over the winter, which is what Curtin will do. For now, she said it’s been frustrating for her children to not be able to play outdoors, although the worst seems to be over in her neighborhood.

A browntail moth caterpillar feeds on a plant. Maine Forest Service via Associated Press

Long added that it is crucial to identify what caterpillars people are dealing with before planning a response. Browntail caterpillars have white stripes on their sides and two orange spots on their hind end.

“We also have a significant number of spongy moth caterpillars present this time of year, particularly in the western part of the county,” she said. “While they are also invasive, and can cause significant defoliation, they are less likely to cause physical symptoms like rash (although it’s possible some may see an allergic reaction to spongy moth caterpillar hairs).

Long said anyone with questions or concerns can get assistance by calling 211. People who want to have caterpillars identified may email photos of [email protected].


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