All About Spider Bites
From books, movies, and of course life experiences, approximately 3% – 15% of the US population experiences arachnophobia. Arachnophobia is the intense fear of arachnids, such as spiders and scorpions. True arachnophobia is debilitating; it is much more than a dislike of the spider in your closet or on your ceiling. True arachnophobia interferes with your day-to-day activities and prevents you from taking part in social activities that would otherwise be enjoyable. People who suffer from arachnophobia suffer from panic attacks, tightness in the chest, and rapid breathing, and uncontrollable shaking. Thoughts of spiders consume their minds, and the thought or sight of a spider may send them into a tailspin.
However, many people are on the opposite extreme of the spider pendulum. Many people find spiders to be extremely docile and intelligent creatures and keep them for pets. The spider keeping trend appeals to a diverse group of people. As we understand more about spiders and their incredible abilities, an appreciation for arachnids begins to develop. We fully recognize that humans can develop relationships with dogs, cats, and even hamsters… but spiders? Yes, absolutely. From tarantulas to wolf and jumping spiders, spiders of many species make interesting and lovable pets.
Although not a pet spider, Charlotte, from E.B. White’s childhood classic Charlotte’s Web is most people’s introduction to the “humanity” of spiders. Charlotte, the wise barnyard spider, and Wilbur the pig, develop a friendship and love for each other. Ultimately, Wilbur sees Charlotte the spider as much more than a “fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty” spider as she works to save his life.
“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” ― E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Of course, most people have a healthy distrust of spiders, but are able to function without extreme anxiety of a spider bite. Spider bites of some species do pose a true threat that should not be ignored or disregarded. However, the vast majority of spiders are not even strong and large enough to puncture human skin. Furthermore, of the spiders that can puncture our skin, most spider species have venom that is relatively harmless to a healthy human.
A Bit About Spiders
There are about 43,000 different species of spiders identified in the world today. Spiders boast a wide array of colors, sizes, and markings, but every spider (arachnid) has 8 legs and 3 to 4 pairs of eyes. The spider world is rich with bright colors and fascinating abilities. Some jumping spiders can leap up to 40 times their body length; if humans could do this, we would jump around 230 feet in the air. Some spiders live exclusively in the water, they spin their webs underwater and even use their legs like a fishing pole to pull in small tadpoles and insects. The males of some spider species present the female with a gift of an insect in order to seduce her; the arachnid version of chocolate no doubt! In days of old, people used to place spider webs on injuries like a bandage. Scientists now know that spider webs contain Vitamin K, which helps to stop bleeding. Finally, the silk of the golden orb spider is one of the lightest yet strongest substances on earth. It is difficult and painstaking to extract from the spider, but scientists are working on replicating the substance for use in military applications and bullet proof armor.
How and Why Spiders Bite
Believe it or not, spiders are docile creatures. As frightening as it is to see the large hairy multi-eyed creature on your wall, spiders would be foolish to treat humans as a potential meal. Spiders like to capture and kill their own prey, they don’t scavenge for leftovers. Spiders are perfectly adapted to feed upon insects such as flies, mosquitos, moths, and butterflies. Web building spiders may catch flying termites and flying ants if the conditions are right. Some species of spiders, like the much-maligned black widow spider, eat others of their own species. Hunting spiders dwell on the ground, underground, or on foliage, rather than in a web. Hunting spiders are surprisingly fast, agile, and fierce. They pounce on crickets, cockroaches, flies, and any other insect that wanders by.
In fact, spiders are the premier purveyor of organic pest control. A 2017 study estimated that worldwide spiders consume between 440 million tons and 888 million tons of insects per year. Scientists extrapolated this figure by first estimating the biomass of spiders around the world. They determined that there were approximately 27 million tons of spiders on planet Earth. By calculating out how much spiders need to eat per day to survive, the above estimates were obtained. In view of spiders’ massive appetite for insects, be assured, spiders are not roaming this earth in search of a human meal.
Spiders rarely bite humans unless they are frightened or feel threatened. Most spiders are equipped with fangs and venom with which to subdue their choice of prey. However, most of the fangs and venom in the spider world really pose no risk to humans. Consider the size difference. Spider fangs and venom are intended to overwhelm small insects upon which spiders feast. The fangs of most spider species will not even pierce human skin. If the fangs do pierce, the venom of most spider species is not powerful enough to kill a healthy human.
Spiders do not have teeth, so they must consume their food in liquified form. Most hunting spiders have serrated mouthparts or chelicerae. These spiders pin their prey to the ground and use these serrated mouth knives to tear apart and shred the insect. They use their fangs to inject venom and digestive juices which aids in the liquification of the meal. Most web building spiders do not have serrated chelicerae, however they do inject venom into insects caught in the web. Many web dwelling spiders immobilize their prey by either using a neurotoxic venom or wrapping them up with silk in a cocoon like coffin. They inject liquifying agents and digestive enzymes into the prey and eagerly await their meal.
Once the prey is sufficiently liquified, spiders use their suction like stomach to suck up the liquid nutrients. Many spiders use a spit, suck rhythm to finish a meal. Often, the insect disintegrates and is eaten from the inside out, often leaving the hard exoskeleton behind. Some spider species have been known to consume their web when they are ready to construct a new one. This conservation of energy and nutrients allows the spider to efficiently recycle the nutrients and build a new life-giving web.
The Science of Spider Venom
The chemical manner in which the spider venom works, sometimes called the mode of action, is different across different types of spiders. Spider venom is made in a special gland on the spider and delivered to the spider’s victim via hollow fangs. Spider venom is specifically lethal for arthropods/insects. Spider venom is a concoction of several different chemicals, such as proteins, peptides, sugars, and other substances, but the general chemical categories of spider venoms are neurotoxins and cytotoxins.
- Neurotoxins – kill or immobilize the prey by acting against the nervous system
- Cytotoxins – dissolves or break down tissue (necrosis) so that the spider can ingest the prey
The most notorious spider that utilizes a neurotoxic venom is the black widow spider. Neurotoxin venom manipulates nerve impulses to the muscles. Additionally, other chemicals are over produced as a reaction to the venom. Neurotoxins cause muscle spasms and rigidity. Ultimately, the insect prey is immobilized and dies. The vast majority of widow spider bites are not deadly to humans but are nonetheless extremely painful and serious.
Cytotoxins are used by many spider species. Cytotoxins have a toxic effect on the cells which damages the tissue of the spider’s prey. When an insect meal is captured in the spider web and subsequently injected with the spider’s cytotoxin, the insect is basically liquefied. Because spiders don’t have teeth, the nutritious liquefied meal is easily ingested. However, when healthy adult humans are injected with this cytotoxin the skin and tissue surrounding the bite becomes necrotic and dies.
All spiders except for those in the family Uloboridae have venom. These spiders have fangs, but do not possess venom glands. They wrap their prey in silk and regurgitate digestive enzymes onto it.
What Do Spider Bites Look Like?
On humans, the appearance of spider bites ranges from a small pinprick to extreme pain and death of tissue. To complicate matters, everyone reacts differently to spider and insect bites and there may be secondary infections. Some people will have little to no reaction to a bite that would cause a serious reaction in a hypersensitive person. Secondary skin infections like MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphuloccus auera) bacteria may enter the skin from a minor spider bite and carry with it severe ramifications.
Many spiders are timid and reluctant to bite humans. Even when frightened or threatened, most spiders run or hide. Spiders generally only bite in self-defense if they are mishandled, cornered, injured, of feel threatened. Occasionally, spiders utilize a tactic called a “dry bite.” This is when the spider bites you, but does not even bother injecting you with venom. Like others in the animal kingdom, spiders have an innate knowledge that humans are an unlikely food source… therefore why “waste” its venom which is very costly for the spider to produce.
As stated above, the fangs of most spiders cannot even pierce human skin. If they do pierce your skin, the venom, which is engineered to kill small insects, has little to no effect on healthy humans. Of course, there are exceptions to this general rule! Hence, the fear of spider bites! The medically important spiders in the United States are widow spiders and brown recluse spiders. These spiders will be discussed in greater detail below.
Aside from the bites of a spider in the widow or recluse family, most spider bites will consist of localized pain, redness, and swelling. While not pleasant, most spider bites are no more painful than the sting of a bee. Just as with a bee sting, the general area will be red, tender, and irritated. Spider bites do not generally result in a broad skin rash, and any the tenderness and irritation generally clears within a day or two. However, there is a broad range of human responses to spider bites. Some people who are bit by a spider will experience no symptoms at all, while others are much more sensitive to the chemical compounds injected into to their system by the fangs of a spider. Even though the vast majority of spider bites are relatively harmless, always keep a close eye for unusual or serious complications.
Clinically, spider bites are often misdiagnosed. They look very similar to the bite of many other insects, or even a minor skin irritation. If a spider was not observed on the skin, absolute identification of a bite as a spider is difficult. However, if you feel a bite, and see a spider, attempt to capture the spider in a glass, or at least capture a photograph of the spider. Field studies and laboratory investigations have revealed that tick bites, mosquito bites, bed bug bites, and the bites of many other insects or other skin irritations are often mistakenly diagnosed as spider bites.
Many people believe that a spider bite will have two small yet visible holes or dots. These dots would correspond with the two fangs of the spider. If you were bit by a large spider like a tarantula, these injection sites would be visible. However, in a small spider, the two entry spots are so close together there is little room for visual separation. In addition, spider fangs are so slim and sharp, often puncture wounds are not visible. Add to that, localized swelling and redness associated with the puncture and this 2-hole theory begins to look less reliable. If 2 small holes or piercings are visibly present, it could be the work of a bed bug or a mosquito bite. These blood suckers often pierce multiple times in a row in the same general area.
Spider Bite Itch
As stated above, spider bites range from having no symptoms to excruciatingly painful and serious complications. It all depends on the species of spider and your immune response to the venom. However, most “mild” spider bite victims do experience some level of itchy sensation near the source of the bite. The itch associated with a medically non-serious spider bite is generally no worse than an ant bite or a mosquito bite. Absent a severe allergic reaction or a compromised immune system, generally the itch associated with a spider bite can be managed with over-the-counter itch cream and/or antihistamine medication. However, generalized itch can be a sign that you were bitten by a medically significant spider. If you feel that the itch associated with your spider bite is substantial, contact a medical professional.
Spider Bite Rash and Blisters
Even a spider bite that is not considered life-threatening, will usually present as a raised red blister. Similar to an ant bite, the skin becomes red and inflamed at the location of the bite. Many spider bites look very similar to other common insect bites, therefore 100% identification is difficult without the spider specimen.
Although redness at the source of the bite is expected, it is rare for a broad rash to develop around the area of a spider bite. For example, if a small, non-serious spider bites your hand, discoloration and a bumpy red rash would not be expected over your arms and trunk area.
However, discernment and good judgment should be utilized. If you did not see the spider, or you can not identify the spider that bit you and unexpected and bizarre symptoms are materializing, seek medical treatment. The Brown Recluse utilizes a cytotoxin in its venom. This toxin essentially kills cells and causes damage to tissue surrounding the bite. In a human this may look like a rash over a large area of your body, and blisters, and legions. These symptoms are not normal when bit by a harmless spider. If you experience skin legions and large rash, chances are you were bitten by a serious spider and should seek medical treatment.
Spider Bite Swelling
Swelling is a normal immunological response to a foreign substance within your body. Just as ant bites and mosquito bites swell in response to the foreign agent, some amount of swelling is normal when dealing with a spider bite. A non-serious spider bite may present with minor swelling and redness and resolve within a day or two. A more serious spider bite, such as a bite from a brown recluse, will result in much more obvious swelling, ultimately turning to blisters or ulcer like in appearance.
When determining the seriousness of a spider bite, the level of swelling should be taken into account. Spider bites with pronounced swelling may be a result of a serious bite, or it may be your individual immunological response. A serious spider bite will undoubtedly be accompanied by other severe symptoms in addition to the swelling.
When To Seek Medical Attention for a Spider Bite
The bite of a “harmless” spider ranges from almost no symptoms to localized redness, itching and burning, and a small amount of swelling. The bite of more serious spider will result in much more severe physical symptoms. But who can you tell the difference? How do you know when you should go to the doctor? As with bites and skin irritations of all kinds, every person’s reaction is very much individualized. It is impossible to say that a bump from the bite of a common house spider, Achaearanea tepidariorum, will grow to be 2.17 mm across. The inherent variation in reactions to spider bites make it impossible to give absolute guidelines as to what will happen to you when you are bit by a certain species of spider. Often, the judgement call as to whether you should seek medical treatment involves weighing all of your symptoms.
With a harmless or minor spider bite, you will likely experience minor symptoms. However, a bite from highly venomous Black Widow Spider will result in painful and extreme symptoms. Regardless of whether you can confirm you have been bitten by a spider, if you experience any, or a combination of, the symptoms below, contact your doctor for evaluation and treatment.
- Sharp pinprick pain followed by numbness at the puncture site
- Droopy or swollen eyelids
- Nausea and Vomiting
- Severe Headache
- Increased Saliva Production
- Painful Muscle Cramps or Stiffness/Tightness in the Body
- Profuse Sweating
- Itchy Rash at the Puncture Site and/or All Over the Body
- Blister Surrounded by a Bruise (may look like a bull’s eye)
- Ruptured Blister or Puss Filled Ulcer
- Cognitive Impairment
Especially in the case of a brown recluse spider bite, you may not feel the initial bite. Therefore, you may never see the spider. However, if you experience any of the symptoms listed above seek medical attention. Medical professionals can prescribe palliative care to ease the pain and monitor your physical state and intervene if necessary. Currently, there is no anti-venom for brown recluse spiders, but there is anti-venom available if you have been bitten by a black widow spider.
Pictures of Spider Bites
The range of spider bite symptoms vary. Below are some examples of common reactions to spider bites.
Common Spiders of Florida and Georgia
Spiders are timid and non-aggressive towards humans. Despite our extreme fear of spiders, they recognize that we are not a food source to them. Hence, they would prefer to be left alone to construct their webs and hunt insects in peace. However, when disturbed or frightened they can and do bite. Generally, people that are bit by spiders are disrupting their environment and the spider reacts out of fear. Notwithstanding the much-dreaded black widow spider and brown recluse spider which will be discussed in greater detail later, below are the names, descriptions, and areas that common spiders of Georgia and Florida may be found.
Common House Spider Bites
The common house spider, Achaearanea tepidariorum, is likely the most common spider found living amongst our homes and belongings in Georgia and Florida. This is the spider that is to blame for cobwebs in the corners and eaves of our homes. The common house spider spins these tangle webs, either inside or outside, to catch insects such as roaches and flies. The common house spider is a relatively small size spider. The female grows between 5 mm to 8 mm in length while the male remains about 4 mm in length. In addition to our homes, the common house spider is likely to be found in sheds, garages, barns, and stables. Interestingly enough, this spider has adapted to co-exist almost exclusively with humans and our structures. Common house spiders do not tend to wander around our homes, they prefer to sit back and let their web do the work of securing a meal. They will bite if provoked, but their fangs are so tiny, and the amount of venom injected is minimal. The bite of a common house spider is unlikely to elicit a serious reaction.
Jumping Spider Bites
Jumping Spiders, of the family Salticidae, are sometimes called salticids. Jumping spiders do not build webs, rather they actively hunt prey and pounce on insects to capture them. Most species of jumping spiders are small, usually around ½ inch, and many are brightly colored with iridescent shades. There are over 4,000 individual species of jumping spiders, some of which can leap 40 times their body length! Jumping spiders have spectacular eye-sight and are most often found outdoors where insect hunting is better. Jumping spiders are very intelligent and are often kept as pets. Some common species such as the Bold Jumping Spider have bright metallic colorings. Jumping spiders only attempt to bite human when they are being crushed or grossly mishandled. Even then, their tiny fangs rarely penetrate our skin. Jumping spiders, although common in Florida and Georgia, do not pose a risk to human safety.
Wolf Spider Bites
Wolf spiders are large and hairy. Wolf spiders are hunters and are usually found outside in the leaf litter where they are very well camouflaged. Wolf spiders do not spin webs, rather they dig burrows or hide in debris. The largest of the wolf spiders is the Carolina wolf spider, Hogna carolinensis. The female of this species may grow up to 35 mm in length, or about 1.4 inches. Because wolf spiders are larger than many other spider species, their bite may affect humans. If trapped against the skin in clothing, stepped on, or mishandled, wolf spiders will bite humans. The bite of a large wolf spider will certainly reveal localized swelling, itching, pain, and redness. The larger the wolf spider, the more severe the reaction will likely be, however the symptoms are usually resolved in 24 hours with no serious consequences.
Crab Spider Bites
Crab Spiders are appropriately named because they hold their legs out to the side and scuttle sideways like a crab. These spiders spend most of their time inside of flowers where they are well camouflaged, but some crab spider species are notorious for building webs inside pool cages. Crab spiders come in a variety of vivid colors with round flat bodies and short legs. They often resemble flowers, fruit, leaves, or grass and are therefore often difficult to find. Some species of crab spiders can even change colors to match their surroundings much like a chameleon. While the venom of crab spiders is certainly potent enough to immobilize and liquify their insect prey, crab spiders are not a health concern for humans. Most species in the crab spider family of Thomisidae are too small to even puncture the skin of humans. Crab spiders should be appreciated for their unique beauty and abilities rather than feared.
Southern House or Crevice Spider Bites
The southern house spider, Kukulcania hibernalis, is an imposing and frightful looking arachnid that is common in southern states such as Georgia and Florida. This spider is sometimes called the southern crevice spider because of its affinity for constructing webs high up in corners, rafters, and especially in spaces within masonry of man-made structures. The southern house spider creates a visually tangled looking web and aids in pest control efforts by capturing and consuming roaches, ants, flies, and many other insects. Female southern house spiders, the larger of the species, are between 13-19 mm in length, but their long leg span makes them look much more imposing. Although there are 2 confirmed cases of the bite of the southern house spider causing pain, redness, and swelling for 2 days, these spiders are generally not considered dangerous. They are nearly blind and would rather play dead than attack. If compelled, they will bite, but their fangs rarely penetrate human skin.
Southern house or crevice spiders are often confused with the hazardous brown recluse. Male southern house spiders wander around looking for a mate and will thoughtlessly wander right over human skin. This habit, in conjunction with their visual similarity to the brown recluse causes much panic and horror. The southern house spider is significantly larger than a brown recluse. Most everyone knows to look for the trademark violin on the back of a brown recluse. The male southern house spider has a brown strip behind the eye that narrows down its back. With a flustered glance, it is easy to assume that strip is a full violin and enter full panic mode. In addition, the brown recluse and southern house spiders have different eye arrangements, but in the moment who actually stops to count spider eyes! Suffice it to say, the brown recluse is smaller and entomologists agree, Florida and most of Georgia are not within their known native range… more on that later.
Orb Weaver Spider Bites
Orb Weavers are a large family of spiders which consist of some of the most commonly seen garden, field, and yard spiders. Orb, meaning circular, is descriptive of orb weavers style of web construction. The large intricate webs duplicated on Halloween designs, are originally the work of orb weavers. Their webs look like they were created by a mathematician with a ruler and a protractor. Orb Weavers are common throughout much of the eastern United States in the woodlands and forests. One of the most common and easily recognized orb weaver spiders is the spiny orb weaver. Its white body is oblong in shape with black spots and red spikes along the edge. This tiny spider is an imposing sight perching upon its immaculate web. One of the largest orb weaver spiders is also quite common in Florida and Georgia, the golden silk spider, Trichonephila clavipes, but known to most children of the south as the banana spider. This large beautiful black and yellow spider appears in the morning dew over vegetable gardens and amongst the trees. The distinctive leg pattern of bright yellow, red, and tufts of black “fur” make even the most hurried among us stop to admire its majesty. Orb weavers would rather drop from their web than confront a human. However, if captured, they can bite. However, the bite is rare even when this spider is mishandled. Like most other spiders, the bite of an orb weaver, if it breaks the skin, will be slightly uncomfortable for a short time; it usually less painful than a bee sting, and ultimately poses no health risk.
Joro Spider Bite
Joro spiders, a recently introduced invasive species, are now a common sight in the north Georgia area of Atlanta. University of Georgia researchers first observed this native Asian spider in Georgia in 2013 and it is now considered a commonplace sight. These large spiders are approximately the size of an adult hand and bright yellow and black. Joro spiders travel by ballooning on their silk and letting the wind carry them. They also “hitch-hike” in the belongings and vehicles of human travelers. Unlike other smaller spiders, joro spiders are able to capture and eat the nuisance pest the marmorated stink bug. At this point, scientists believe the joro spider is permanently established in Georgia and will likely spread to surrounding areas. The question that remains is how this non-native spider will affect the ecosystem and food supply. So far, joro spiders seem to be integrating with native orb weavers and other species without disturbing the delicate balance of nature; but the ultimate outcome remains to be seen. Like most other spider species, joro spiders are not aggressive or territorial, and do not readily bite. Joro spiders do contain venom, but nothing more than redness, swelling, and a low-grade fever has been reported from their bite. Joro spiders are a species to watch, but they do not seem to favor building their webs indoors or interacting with humans.
Poisonous Spider Bites
Nearly all spiders are venomous, but not all spiders are dangerous to humans. In fact, when you know the numbers and facts about spiders, our fear of spiders starts to feel a bit illogical. Most spiders prefer to avoid confrontations with humans. If trapped or cornered, they may bite, but many species prefer to play dead or cut loose from their web and disappear. Of the spiders that do bite humans, most of the times their fangs do not even pierce the skin. Furthermore, sometimes spiders are known to do a dry bite. This is where they puncture the skin, but they do not inject any venom. Maybe spiders inherently know that we humans are an unlikely meal, and they would be better suited to save their venom to procure a meal. When spiders do bite and inject venom, most of the time the venom has little effect on people.
There are 2 exceptions to this general rule, the brown recluse and the black widow spider. However, even with the powerful toxins of these 2 spiders, most people recover without serious complications. The best statistics for spider bite death comes from a study examining CDC data between the years 2008 – 2015. This data reveals that on average 7 people die from spider bites in the United States every year. The majority of these 7 deaths are children. Further information reveals that there are no documented deaths from a brown recluse spider. While this is encouraging news to the truly arachnophobic among us, this does not mean the bites from these species of spiders is a walk in the park. Black widow and brown recluse spider bites are extremely serious and painful. If you believe you have been bitten by either one of these spiders, it is wise to seek medical treatment immediately.
Black Widow Spider Bites and Symptoms
The Southern black widow spider, Latrodectus mactans, is common throughout southeastern United States. The black widow spider is a medium sized shiny black spider with a distinctive bright red hour-glass shape on its abdomen. Black widows earned their name due to the belief that the females consume the male after mating. While sometimes observed in nature, this practice appears to be less common than once believed. However, the story adds additional allure, danger, and fascination, to an already mythical-like creature.
Black widows prefer low lying areas but may create webs several meters high. They like dark sheltered areas including wood piles, rock piles, around decks, and rodent burrows. Black widows can also be found in garages, sheds, and basements. Black widows only bite when threatened. Wear protective gloves when doing yard work, bringing in firewood, or cleaning out the basement or garage. Unless trapped, a black widow would prefer to scuttle away than bite.
Black widow spiders inject a neurotoxin which is much more powerful than the venom of other spiders. In fact, drop for drop, the black widow’s venom is said to be 15 times more powerful than a rattlesnake’s venom. Of course, more people die from rattlesnake bites because rattlesnakes inject more venom into their victim with each strike. With this potent toxin, black widow spiders can eat larger prey than other spiders, occasionally consuming small reptiles and small mammals that wander into their web. The venom of the black widow affects the nervous system and causes its prey to become immobilized and unable to escape the web. The black widow applies digestive juices and awaits the liquification of her meal.
As always, the reaction to a black widow bite depends upon many factors including, where the victim was bit, the amount of venom injected by the spider, the age and general health of the victim, and any allergies. As you know, most black widow victims make it through and do not experience all of the possible symptoms mentioned below, but at the initial stages of a bite, you have no way to know the severity of your reaction.
When a black widow bites, most people will feel immediate searing pain, however some people report no initial pain. Swelling, redness, and tenderness at the site of the bite becomes obvious.
You should seek medical treatment immediately as the following symptoms may occur:
- Muscle tightness or stiffness
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe abdominal cramping and pain
- Excessive sweating
- Itching and rash
- Swollen eyelids
- Weakness or tremors
- Inability to move body parts
- Increased blood pressure
In rare cases, black widow venom may induce seizures and even death. These frightening and painful symptoms may last 2 – 3 days with more mild symptoms lingering for several weeks. In addition to monitoring your symptoms and intervening should it be necessary, doctors can administer pain killers, muscle relaxers, and other medications to counteract the effects of the neurotoxin coursing through your body.
Black widow antivenom is available, but the medical trend is to not use it unless absolutely necessary. It is created by painstakingly “milking” black widow spiders of their venom and injecting small amounts into horses. The horses then develop antibodies that help them combat the effects of the venom. Some individuals have experienced an allergic reaction to the horse serum which contains the needed antibodies. It is medically recognized that the vast majority of healthy people will recover naturally from a black widow bite. However, unknowingly injecting an allergen into a system that is already stressed, may cause more harm than good. Most doctors are opting to use black widow venom as a last resort and instead provide palliative care as the body works to clear the poison.
Other Widow Spiders
As if black widows were not enough to be concerned about, close family relations are also found in Florida and Georgia. Northern black widows are found in areas of both Florida and Georgia. While the southern black widow has an obvious red hourglass on its shiny black back, the northern black widow’s hourglass appears to be split in half or may appear more as bright red dots. The brown widow spider, found in both Georgia and Florida, varies in color from light to dark brown. Rather than bright red, its hourglass figure appears more orange or yellow. It may also be more of an irregular blotchy spot than an hourglass. The venom of the brown widow spider is actually twice as potent as that of the black widow spider. However, the brown widow is smaller and injects less venom, therefore is less medically significant. Studies have also shown the brown widow prefers to “play possum” and will pretend to be dead instead of attacking. Scientists were unable to coax brown widows to bite by poking them with a hand in that study. The red widow spider is restricted to the pine scrub habitats of Florida. The red widow’s abdomen is black with red dots bordered with yellow. Its head, legs, and thorax are red-orange. Despite these varying species of widow spiders in our environment it is still the black widow that is feared the most.
Brown Recluse Spider Bites and Symptoms
The brown recluse spider, Loxosceles reclusa, is a medium sized spider with necrotic venom. In fact, the brown recluse is a fairly ordinary looking spider. With legs fully extended, it is only about the size of a quarter, it is brown with brown markings (like many other spiders) and is not often seen in a web. The best characteristic to identify a brown recluse is that it has 6 eyes whereas most other spiders have 8 eight eyes. However, this will take a microscope or strong magnifying glass.
The bite of this spider can cause serious physical reactions, but it is believed that this spider is often blamed for skin lesions for which it is not responsible. The sores that develop after a brown recluse spider bites are similar to many other medical conditions, such as bacterial and fungal infections, diabetic ulcers, bed sores or pressure ulcers, and drug resistant staph infections that can occur after even a scratch or mosquito bite. Even the professionals (doctors) have been shown to falsely misidentify many unknown sores as brown recluse bites. To make it more difficult, the initial bite of the brown recluse is most often not felt.
Like other spiders, the brown recluse is not naturally aggressive and only tends to bite when it is pinned against the skin. Likely brown recluse bite scenarios include unpacking boxes from the attic or basement or putting your feet in shoes without doing a critter check. If you believe you have been bitten by a brown recluse, attempt to capture the specimen by placing a jar or cup over it. If that is impossible or impracticable, at least whip out your phone and get the best shot you can.
There have been no documented cases of deaths in the United States from the brown recluse spider, and most healthy adults recover without serious complications. Make no mistake, however, ridding this cytotoxin from your body is certainly an unpleasant experience. Usually between 2 – 8 hours after the brown recluse bite, you will experience redness, tenderness, and swelling at the source of the bite. From here, symptoms will escalate. The initial redness will likely progress into a bulls-eye mark with a large red ring around the center bite. The center may morph into a blister or lesion which may turn black and blue as the tissue dies away.
Depending upon the amount of venom injected and your individual reaction, symptoms may include the following:
- Burning sensation at the bite site
- Blisters or lesions
- Change in color from red to blue or black
- Muscle and body aches
- Fever and chills
- Generalized rash
- Nausea and vomiting
- Difficulty sleeping
If you experience any of these symptoms, contact a medical professional. While there is no antivenom for the bite of a brown recluse, it is a powerful poison, and your condition should be monitored and treated.
Truth be told, most brown recluse bites simply cause localized redness with nothing further, but the effects of a brown recluse bite can last for several weeks. In most cases, the immediate pain and discomfort resolve within 3 – 5 days. If ulcers and blisters broke out, the wounds may take several weeks to thoroughly heal. In severe cases, with the imminent death of tissue, the risk of infection is high. This wound should be treated by medical professionals to deter the complication of infection. After several weeks, the wound will heal, and a black scab will form. Ultimately, the scab will fall off, but you may be left with a permanent scar… a memento of sorts from your battle with the brown recluse.
Brown Recluse Spiders in Florida
Although there is much fear and lore associated with the brown recluse spider, a critical review of its distribution range is necessary to truly assess your risk for a brown recluse bite. The brown recluse spider’s native range extends from south central and midwestern United States, including Texas north to Kansas, and Alabama and Mississippi north to Kentucky and Illinois. This native range does include parts of north Georgia near Atlanta, but they are almost never seen in North Georgia. The range does NOT include Florida. Brown recluse spiders are rarely found outside of their native range; therefore entomologists believe that sightings and reports of brown recluse bites are over-reported. For example, in 2000 alone, Florida Poison Control reported nearly 300 alleged brown recluse bites. However, the lack of actual specimens collected from Florida suggests that this number is inflated.
When brown recluse specimens are located outside their native range, they are almost always on a boat or vehicle that recently traveled from an area with known brown recluse populations. For example, when a person relocates from Texas to Florida, they may carry a brown recluse with them amongst their boxes of belongings. It is entirely possible to be bit by the spider when unpacking. Verified brown recluse bites in Florida are an isolated incident that can be linked to travel. There is no evidence to support a breeding population of brown recluse spiders in Florida. However, the nature of scientific exploration is that it is always moving forward. If you believe you have located a brown recluse in a non-native range, contact your local extension agent or university entomology department.
Allergic Reaction to Spider Bites
Aside from black widows and brown recluses, most spider bites are not medically serious. However, the venom of a normally benign spider may cause an unexpected allergic reaction in some individuals. We are accustomed to some people being highly allergic to the sting or bees and wasps, but spiders? Systemic reactions to spider bites are rare indeed, but it is certainly possible. If you are allergic to bee stings, you may not be allergic to spider bites. The opposite is also true.
If you have been bitten by a spider and begin to feel any of the symptoms below, seek medical treatment immediately.
- Hives or a generalized rash across wide areas of the body
- Abdominal pain and nausea
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling of the tongue
Spider Bites vs. Mosquito Bites
Mosquito bites and spider bites both can leave a red raised welt on the skin. Believe it or not, people often do not initially feel a mosquito or spider bite. It is only later when it begins to hurt or itch you begin to wonder what may have caused it. And once you consult doctor, google, your imagination can run wild!
You can pick up mosquito bites and spider bites in similar situations, hiking or camping, doing yard work, or even sleeping in your bed. How can you tell the difference between a spider bite and a mosquito bite? Some people claim that a spider bite always has 2 visible pin-prick marks. However, this is not a reliable method of determining spider vs. mosquito bite. Spider fangs are so small and sharp that they often do not leave a visible mark, especially once swelling and discoloration has ensued. In addition, mosquitos must locate a blood vessel and may have to move over just a bit after the initial poke and poke again. Therefore, a mosquito bite may have what appears to be spider fang prints.
In many people, a mosquito bite changes over the course of several hours. What begins as a small red bump, may enlarge and turn white. Spider bites do not tend to change in appearance in that way. Spider bites may enlarge and blister but not necessarily turn white like a mosquito bite may. While you may experience some itch with a spider bite, the hallmark characteristic of a mosquito is the incessant itch. Spider bites tend to cause more pain rather than itch. If you are not sure whether a spider or a mosquito got you, evaluate the general feel of the red welt, and monitor the changes over a few hours to a few days.
Treatment of Spider Bites
Getting bit by a spider can be a frightening thing. However, the folklore and mythology surrounding spiders rarely stands up to the truth. Nearly all spiders have venom, and any injection of venom into the human body should be treated seriously. For the vast majority of people a spider bite produces minor pain, localized swelling and redness and resolves itself within a day or two. However, the very young, elderly, or immune compromised may have a more severe reaction. In addition an unknown allergy may cause your reaction to be more extreme than expected. Whatever the case, carefully monitor your body and the bite for changes or signs of a severe reaction and seek medical attention if in doubt.
For most spider bites, basic first aid is all that will be necessary.
- Upon first noticing the spider bite, always wash the bite area with soap and water. Even if the spider didn’t inject venom into you, spiders eat insects, and you don’t know where those fangs have been!
- Apply a cool compress over the bite. A clean cloth filled with ice helps to reduce pain and inflammation.
- Apply antibiotic cream to prevent infection.
- Over-the-counter pain medication may be taken as necessary.
- Over-the-counter anti-itch medication, such as Benadryl or Zyrtec.
If you know, or even suspect, you were bit by a black widow or brown recluse, seek medical treatment without delay. If you can safely capture the spider suspected of causing this harm, do so by placing a cup or jar over the spider. Slide a piece of paper under the rim and turn the jar right side up. Of course, you can forcefully apply a shoe to the spider as well. If all else fails. A photograph taken with your phone can help the doctor in diagnosing and treating you. While most spider bites are safely treated at home, do not delay seeking professional treatment if there is any significant reaction.
Preventing Spider Bites
Spiders are a biologically rich addition to our environment. We should not seek to eradicate spiders from the earth for we would certainly have a pest control crisis on our hands! Rather, by taking simple precautions, we can protect ourselves from the risks associated with spider bites and still allow them to perform their job in the web of life.
Outdoor Spider Prevention
- Wear a long-sleeved shirt, pants, closed toe shoes, and gloves when doing yard work
- Clear and remove yard clutter – remove wood piles, rock piles, and heavy accumulation of leaves and debris
- Wear gloves when moving firewood
- Store firewood far away from the house
- Stack firewood off the ground and cover it with a tarp
- Reduce outdoor lighting – lights attract insects, which attracts spiders
Indoor Spider Prevention
- Remove bed skirts from beds and don’t allow the sheets and blankets to touch the ground
- Bang out shoes and gloves before placing them against your skin
- The kids will love this one! Don’t pick up yesterday’s clothes off the floor and put it back on – or least shake it out first!
- Declutter – indoors and outdoors
- If possible, purchase plastic bins that seal for long term storage. Wear gloves when sorting through items that have been in storage and remain vigilant.
- Install tight fitting door sweeps and weather stripping
- Seal or caulk cracks and crevices to prevent spider entry
Spider Pest Control
Perhaps the best way to prevent spider bites is to reduce the number of insects in and around your home. The spider prevention tips above are also applicable for a reduction of general household pests. Without insects to feed upon, spiders will move to happier hunting grounds. Balancing the diverse needs of a healthy ecosystem and your safety and enjoyment of your home and yard, Nextgen Pest Solutions can solve your pest problem.