Poisonous caterpillars in Sussex - what you need to know

Caterpillar SUS-190521-072057001
Caterpillar SUS-190521-072057001
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This is the time of year when people can come into contact with a caterpillar whose poisonous hairs can cause a painful rash and other medical symptoms.

The caterpillar of the brown tailed moth has already been sited in public gardens in Hastings, where the council have put up warning signs.

The caterpillars are active in May and June.

How do the caterpillars affect people?

The hairs can cause symptoms if the caterpillars or their nests are touched, but they can also be carried on the wind. The most common symptoms are an unpleasant rash. Less common problems are sore throats, breathing difficulties or eye problems.

What plants do they feed on?

Brown-tail larvae have been reported as feeding on 26 genera of non-resinous trees and shrubs belonging to 13 different families.

They feed on a wide range of deciduous trees and shrubs including hawthorn, blackthorn and fruit trees as well as bramble.

Who is affected by these caterpillars?

The caterpillars’ hairs can affect anyone, but asthmatics in particular are at risk of having a severe attack. The hairs can also affect animals, including dogs, cats and horses, so people are also encouraged to keep their pets and livestock away from infested trees.

Why do these moths cause health problems?

Health problems are most common when the caterpillar is in its last stages of development in late May and early June, before becoming a moth. This is because the caterpillars are covered with tiny hairs that contain a toxin. If these hairs and toxins come into contact with the skin they can cause symptoms. Toxins in the hairs remain potent for up to three years. Outdoor activities such as mowing a lawn or raking leaves in the fall can cause exposure

What sort of symptoms do they cause?

If the hairs or toxins come into contact with the skin they can cause a very itchy skin rash. If they come into contact with the eyes they can cause itchy eyes.

Can the symptoms be serious?

People vary in their response - not everyone reacts to the caterpillar hairs. The most common problem is an itchy rash which is unpleasant but not dangerous.

What should I do if I develop these symptoms?

If you are concerned about these symptoms you should contact NHS Direct (0845 4647), or your GP for further advice.

Is there any treatment?

Treatment involves managing the rash caused by the hairs and the toxins and this could involve using an antihistamine cream to relieve the itching. Future exposure should be avoided to ensure symptoms do not return. You can also use hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion.

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