FAQs about Ticks and Browntail Moth Caterpillars

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Answers to Your Questions About Ticks and Browntail Moth Caterpillars

Fine spring weather makes us all want to get outside – just when the re-emergence of troublesome ticks and browntail caterpillars present some very real health risks. Here’s what you need to know to keep yourself and your family safe this summer. 

Why are ticks a problem?

Some ticks carry diseases that spell bad news. The biggest threat is Lyme disease. In Maine, cases jumped from 1,395 in 2014 to 1,769 in 2017, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control. (The real numbers are likely even higher, because many are not reported). As of April 26, there were already 78 cases reported in Maine for 2019.

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria transmitted when an infected deer tick – a.k.a. black-legged tick – bites a person. In the short-term, Lyme typically causes a tell-tale rash and flu-like symptoms. If not treated with antibiotics, the infection can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system. In Maine, anaplasmosis and babesiosis are also spread by ticks, but they are far less common than Lyme.

What can I do to prevent tick bites?

Be on alert from April to September, when ticks are most likely to be at large:

  1. Know and avoid tick habitat. That’s wooded and brush-filled areas with tall grass and leaf debris. If you’re on a trail, stay in the center.
  2. Use an EPA-approved repellent such as Cutter Advanced or Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535 that contains DEET, picaridin, or other proven effective and approved ingredients.
  3. Dress right. Some people opt for clothing treated with permethrin. It’s best to choose light colored clothing to make it easier to see ticks. Wear long-sleeves and long-pants. Tuck socks into pant legs.
  4. Check for ticks as soon as you come inside. Scan the whole body (use a mirror), with extra care in these areas:
  5. In and around hair
  6. In and around ears
  7. Under arms
  8. Inside belly button and around waist
  9. Behind knees
  10. Between legs
  11. Shower within two hours after coming inside to wash off loose ticks.
  12. Put your clothing in the dryer right away and run it on high heat to kill any ticks that hitched a ride.

What should I do if I find a tick?

Remove it right away. Fine-tipped tweezers do the job. Grasp the tick close to the skin and pull steadily up without twisting or jerking. Wash the bite site with soap and water or rubbing alcohol and wash your hands.

Watch for these symptoms – which could indicate Lyme – for 30 days: fever, chills, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, or a red ring around the bite site. Call your health provider if any of these occur.

Why are browntail moth caterpillars a problem?

It’s those tiny toxic barbed hairs. Some people are extra-sensitive to them, and they’re apt to get an itchy rash and/or have difficulty breathing if hairs touch their skin or are inhaled. It doesn’t help that these nearly invisible hair can be toxic for up to three years – or that the hairs can be almost anywhere outside in infested regions (think trees, lawns, decks, cars, play equipment . . .). Wind, raking, and mowing can also whip hairs up and move them around.

Browntail moth caterpillar

What can I do to avoid contact with browntail caterpillar hairs?

Avoid or be extra careful from April into early July in infested and or/avoid areas, especially if you know you’re sensitive to the hairs. Check this map to see last year’s hot spots, and note that experts predict the infestation will spread west. A few more tips:

  • Shower and change clothes if you think you’ve been in contact with browntail hairs.
  • Don’t hang laundry outside to dry in May, June, or July.
  • If you must do chores or activities that could stir up hairs: Dampen the ground or choose wet days so hairs are less likely to take flight. Wear a respirator, goggles and coveralls.

What should I do if I think browntail is irritating me? 

The rash and breathing issues might last only a few hours – or could hang on for weeks. Both can be severe. You might find relief from anti-itch products like calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream or by taking an antihistamine. Last year, some area pharmacies created their own sprays and creams, specially formulated for relief from browntail moth rash.

Call your health care provider if symptoms are a problem.

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