Caterpillars the Culprit for Kids' Rashes, Report Finds

When unexplained outbreaks of skin rashes occur in children, parents and doctors should consider, of all things, caterpillars as a cause, a new report says.

The crawly critters turned out to be the culprits behind of three separate outbreaks of skin rashes among children in Florida, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But some children with the rashes had been misdiagnosed. The rashes were at first mistaken for chicken pox and the bacteria methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). As a result, some children received drug treatments they did not need, the CDC says.

Schools and child care centers should be educated about children's risk of developing skin rashes after contact with certain caterpillars, so children are not mistreated and excluded from school unnecessarily, the CDC says.

In the Florida cases, the white-marked tussock moth caterpillar was responsible for the rashes. This species is known to cause skin rashes after physical contact, and has been linked with previous rash outbreaks, the CDC says.

In all, 23 kids from two child care centers and one elementary school in Tampa developed rashes on their abdomens, chests, backs, arms and legs. The director of one of the centers said that the caterpillars were so abundant, the staff had stopped letting the kids in the playground.

Rashes may arise because of chemicals present on the caterpillars' hairs. If the hairs become airborne, sensitive individuals may develop rashes without actually touching the caterpillars. This may explain why some children in the Florida cases developed rashes on their back and stomach.

Treatment includes placing adhesive tape on the rash and stripping the tape to remove hairs, washing the area with soap and water, placing an ice pack on the rash or applying a low-potency steroid cream, the CDC says.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.