A browntail moth caterpillar is shown above Charlie Ferris, 10, in a tree at Ferris’s home June 2 in Waterville. Ferris and classmate Jameson Dow found four of the caterpillars in the front yard tree. The caterpillar, which has two distinctive reddish dots, has poisonous hairs that can cause a rash if exposed to skin. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

Nature has been playing nasty tricks on us.

First it was ticks, then it was the coronavirus and now, browntail moth caterpillars.

And the latest is some weird substance on Maine beaches that cause your feet to turn black when you step on it?

Are we living a nightmare, or what?

Just when we seem to be approaching a semblance of normalcy, something else socks us in the gut.

Ticks can cause Lyme disease, a nasty affliction that can cause arthritis and nervous system issues; COVID-19 can make us really sick and/or die; and poisonous hairs shed by browntail moth caterpillars this time of year can produce rashes similar to those caused by poison ivy. If inhaled, the hairs can lead to respiratory issues as well.

Waterville has an infestation of browntail moth caterpillars at the moment and the city has applied to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention to have them declared a public health nuisance in the city. By Wednesday the CDC had not received such a request from any Maine city or town, according to CDC spokesman Robert Long.

I asked Long if any consideration had been given to declaring the browntails a public health nuisance statewide.

“At present, Maine CDC is focused on helping communities deal with localized problems caused by the caterpillars,” he said in an email. “Our Division of Disease Surveillance is supporting those local efforts.”

A few years ago, when the tick problem scared us outdoor-lovers half to death, I bought a tick key for my key ring that you can slide onto a tick embedded in your skin and pull straight up. Fortunately, I’ve never had to use it, but others haven’t been so lucky.

COVID-19 has forced us to buy masks and gloves, avoid crowds, stay home, forego visits with friends and family, and basically become hermits.

We hoarded toilet paper because the rolls flew off store shelves. Like COVID, the browntail moth is prompting a similar reaction in that Cortisone and Benadryl creams, as well as witch hazel, are apparently disappearing like wildfire from the shelves of local stores and pharmacies.

About every day I learn on social media about another friend or acquaintance suffering from the browntail rash and they post all sorts of antidotes, including mixtures, sprays and baking soda concoctions.

I wish I could have warned them ahead of time.

Two years ago on July 4, I woke up with a rash, several days after Phil got it from mowing the lawn at China Lake.

That was when browntail moth caterpillars were not yet a problem in Waterville, so we hadn’t a clue what it was, though it presented as a worse form of poison ivy. Phil went to a doctor, who identified it as the browntail rash, and recommended he mix equal parts of maximum strength Cortisone-10 cream, extra strength Benadryl cream, witch hazel and Vicks VapoRub. He was told to shower twice a day and put the mixture on the welts, which served to calm the itch and pain. Vicks was a good cooling agent, which made sleeping possible on sweltering July nights.

My rash was not as bad as Phil’s, but it was no fun and I have great empathy for those who get it.

I take some simple precautions now: I cover myself from head to toe when I’m gardening, immediately throw my clothes into the washer afterward and then shower. I point fans toward windows instead of inward so the caterpillar hairs don’t get sucked into the house and I always make sure to have remedies on hand a month before browntail moth caterpillar season. As much as I love to hang the wash outdoors, I forego doing so during June and July.

Another tip I learned this month is, the moment you realize caterpillar hairs have embedded in your skin, press duct tape on the affected area and rip it off. Those poisonous hairs should come with it.

All of this craziness serves to remind me that some 50 years ago in central Maine, we kids never gave a second thought to lying in the grass, inhaling the fresh scent of summer, traipsing through the woods and sleeping out under the stars. What worries did we have then?

I’m not a fan of home air conditioning, opting instead to open windows and feel the breeze. Being shut inside a cool house and not being able to experiencing the sweetness of summer isn’t my idea of living.

But maybe that’s where we’ll be in another couple of decades — who knows?

One thing I know for sure? I’ll rue that day.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 33 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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