Rashes Caused by Caterpillars

White-marked tussock moth caterpillar - Photo by Steven Brewer

Most parents want their kids to get outside and play.

Getting in touch with nature and learning more about the flora and fauna around their home is also a great idea.

Hopefully, this story of kids who got rashes from touching caterpillars won't discourage any of that playing or exploring. It will hopefully help us all be a little more aware of what's out there.

The CDC recently released a report, "Caterpillar-Associated Rashes in Children — Hillsborough County, Florida, 2011," that described a rash illness in 23 children and one adult that was linked to the white-marked tussock moth caterpillar.

While they aren't poisonous, being aware that these caterpillars can trigger a rash is important because most of the kids were initially misdiagnosed as having a viral rash, chicken pox, molluscum contagiosum, and even MRSA folliculitis. The rashes from the caterpillars have also been misdiagnosed as scabies, flea bites, mosquito bites, scarlet fever, fifth disease, and contact dermatitis.

The cases occurred in three clusters at two child care centers and one elementary school in Hillsborough County (Tampa, Florida). In all three, their playground, and playground equipment, was found to have the caterpillars which can trigger an itchy rash, usually on the child's abdomen, chest, back, arms, or legs, either from chemicals on the caterpillars or caterpillar hairs or mechanical irritation. The rash occurs minutes to hours after the exposure to these caterpillars and is considered to be a mild reaction, unlike the sting from some other caterpillars, which might appear more quickly.

The CDC recommends that:

  • affected schools and day care centers power-wash playground equipment to remove the caterpillars, cocoons, and their hairs
  • if your child has direct contact with a white-marked tussock moth caterpillar, treatment includes placing adhesive tape over the affected area and repeatedly stripping the tape off to help remove the tiny hairs, washing the area with soap and water, applying ice packs to reduce the stinging sensation, and applying a topical, low potency steroid cream

    See your pediatrician for a more severe reaction, and be sure to mention an exposure to caterpillars if your child has an unexplained, itchy rash. And teach your kids to avoid touching caterpillars unless you are sure that they won't trigger a rash.

    Keep in mind that the white-marked tussock moth caterpillar ranges through much of the eastern United States and as far west as Texas and Colorado and they can often be found from April to fall, appearing in two to three generations (caterpillar to moth) before overwintering in an egg stage.

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