Browntail moth caterpillars, like those seen here, are coming from the trees and bringing with them health risks, according to the Maine Centers for Disease Control. Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Forest Service

Browntail moth caterpillar hairs can be stirred up when people rake leaves in the fall and cause irritation and respiratory problems, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention warns.

This past summer was one of the worst browntail moth breakouts in the state, due to the unusually dry conditions in the spring and optimal breeding conditions last fall.

A woman shows her forearm shortly after she believed she was exposed to the hair of a browntail moth caterpillar earlier this summer. Credit: Courtesy of Amanda Umble

The moth terrorized the Bangor area earlier this year, and many Mainers across the state reported effects from touching the hairs that are shed from the caterpillar stage of the persistent moth. The hairs from the caterpillar can be toxic for up to three years after they are shed, according to the Maine CDC.

Raking, mowing or other fall lawn care activities can stir up residual hairs on leaves and other lawn debris, and the hairs can become airborne. Breathing in browntail moth hairs can cause breathing and respiratory problems, and contact with the hairs often produces an itchy rash that can last from a few hours to a few days.

To help prevent hairs from posing a danger while doing yard work, the Maine CDC suggests working outside when leaves and debris are damp, wearing clothing that covers as much of the skin as possible and securing clothing around wrists and ankles, along with wearing gloves. Masks or respiratory protection can be used as well to help prevent inhaling the hairs.

People can also use pre-exposure poison ivy wipes, which will help prevent hairs from sticking to exposed skin. Hairs can be rinsed off with cool water.

However, another way to protect yourself from browntail moth hairs is to leave your fallen foliage on your lawn. Leaving your yard as it is during fall can help to encourage ecosystem diversity, provide food and other resources for wildlife and can help restore nutrients into your lawn, according to Eric Topper, education director at Maine Audubon.

Leela Stockley

Leela Stockley is an alumna of the University of Maine. She was raised in northern Maine, and loves her cat Wesley and staying active in the Maine outdoors.