How did I spend my first summer vacation?

Mixing up equal parts of maximum strength Cortizone-10 ointment, extra strength Benadryl cream, witch hazel liquid and Vicks VapoRub.

That’s because I got the dreaded browntail moth rash, this nasty, itchy, bumpy red rash caused by poisonous hairs from the moth caterpillar making a beeline to the sensitive skins of people like me and embedding themselves.

How did I know it was browntail moth?

Because my poor husband, Phil, got it first, and six days later, mine appeared, presenting itself exactly as his did.

Saturday, June 29: Phil wakes up scratching a large patch of red bumps on the underside of his upper right arm, lower back, forearms and abdomen.


“What’s THAT?” I  said.

He had no clue, but we thought it could be poison ivy. While he had not been in the puckerbrush, he had mowed lawns on Friday, the previous day.

I encouraged him to rush to Express Care to get it checked out:

“You don’t want it to spread to your eyes!”

That’s all it took to send him flying out the door.

Awhile later, he returned with instructions for how to concoct the balm using the four ingredients. The health care worker recommended applying it to the affected areas three or four times a day.


“She said it looked like browntail moth rash, and this is the right time of year for it,” Phil said. “She said she wasn’t going to prescribe Prednisone because of the side effects.”

I mixed the Benadryl, Cortizone, witch hazel and Vicks daily in a little glass bowl, using a measuring spoon, and applied it morning and night with cotton balls after Phil showered. This went on for 11 days.

Meanwhile, on day six of his rash, the Fourth of July, I woke up with the browntail moth rash, which appeared behind both upper arms and on the side of my abdomen, a little on my back and on both forearms. No fun!

It is a miserable malady, making you want to hole up at home and not do anything to make you perspire, as that irritates the rash more. And wouldn’t you know, that week of the Fourth was blistering hot!

I showered twice a day for seven days and applied the rash mixture, which, by the way, feels great because of the cooling nature of the Vicks.

But how did I get the rash in the first place? I wondered. It is not supposed to be contagious, so it would not transfer from one person to another. I had cleared some brush from around a flower garden a week prior, but I couldn’t imagine that the rash would take that long to manifest itself.


After Phil got it, I followed all the advice, such as laundering clothes and showering after going outside and staying away from apple and oak trees, as that’s where the browntail moth caterpillar likes to hang out.

I went online and Googled browntail moth rash and found all sorts of recommendations and tips, one of which is to make sure not to place your fan so it blows air into a room from a window because it could blow the caterpillar hairs inside.

And what had I done the night before my rash appeared? Placed the fan so that it blew air into the bedroom!

I’ve learned a lot about the browntail moth. The Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s website says it is an invasive species and the rash may last a few hours or several days, but people who are particularly sensitive can have a severe rash that can last several weeks. Egads!

“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,” the CDC site says. “Respiratory distress from inhaling the hairs can be serious. Caterpillars are active from April to late June. Hairs remain toxic throughout the summer but get washed into the soil and are less of a problem over time.”

Everything seems to be late this year, so I surmise that’s why the caterpillar is still around in July.


The good news is, six days into the rash, July 9, I’m feeling much better and it is the first day I have not felt compelled to apply the ointment. And it is getting toward the time, fingers crossed, when the caterpillars should have turned into butterflies.

The bad news? Phil is afraid to mow the lawns, as am I. Who wouldn’t be?

While it’s been a trial dealing with the browntail moth rash, I figure there’s an upside. I’ve got another vacation week coming up soon, and it can’t be as bad as the last. Can it?


Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 31 years. Her columns appear here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to

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