Protect against browntail moth hairs during fall cleanup

AUGUSTA — The Maine CDC, Maine Forest Service (MFS), and 211 Maine remind the public to take precautions against browntail moth exposure, as fall cleanup activities and dry weather can increase the public health risks they pose. 

Browntail moth hairs in the environment can get stirred up during fall yardwork. These tiny hairs shed by the caterpillars can cause a skin reaction like poison ivy. They can also cause trouble breathing and other respiratory problems. Residents of all counties in southern, midcoastDowneast and south-central Maine are at some risk of browntail moth hair exposure.  

Browntail moth caterpillar hairs remain toxic in the environment for up to three years, so it is important that Maine people and visitors take the proper prevention measures when working outside this fall,” said Dr. Nirav D. Shah, director of Maine CDC. “This year’s drought conditions add to the risk.” 

The hairs blow around in the air and fall onto leaves and brush. Mowing, raking, sweeping and other activities can cause the hairs to become airborne and lead to skin and breathing problems. Extremely dry weather, which Maine is currently experiencing, allows for greater spread of the moth hairs because they can more easily be blown around by the wind. 

Most people affected by the hairs develop a localized rash that lasts from a few hours to several days. For some individuals, the rash can be severe and last for weeks. The hairs may also cause trouble breathing, which may result in respiratory distress. There is no specific treatment for the rash or breathing problems caused by browntail moth hairs. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms.  

To reduce exposure to browntail moth hairs while working outdoors in infested areas, the following steps are recommended: 

  • If possible, do yardwork when leaves are wet to prevent hairs from becoming airborne.  
  • Do not rake, use leaf blowers or mow the lawn on dry days.  
  • Do not dry laundry outside where hairs can cling to clothing. 
  • Cover your face and any exposed skin by wearing a long-sleeve shirt, long pants, goggles, a respirator/dust mask, a hat and a disposable coverall. 
  • Secure clothing around the neck, wrists and ankles. 
  • If respirators are difficult to find, performing activities in damp conditions with a cloth face covering may reduce the risk of inhaling caterpillar hairs. 
  • Apply pre-contact poison ivy wipes to help reduce hairs sticking onto exposed skin. 
  • Take a cool shower to wash off loose hairs and change clothes after outdoor activities. 
  • Use extra caution when bringing in items stored outdoors, such as firewood, or working in areas sheltered from the rain, like under decks. 

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