Spiders can be found in nearly every corner of the world, except Antarctica, but the spiders most people worry about are the ones lurking in the corners of their homes, like the brown recluse or black widow. A brown recluse spider has been named as the possible culprit in the recent case of Victoria Franklin, a woman living in Georgia who lost her breast from gangrene after being bit by the arachnid.
According to The World Spider Catalog, there were 41,253 species of spiders identified as of December 16, 2009, but only a few are dangerous to humans. Two of those dangerous spiders can be found in the contiguous United States, and especially in the southern states where Ms. Franklin lives: the brown recluse and the black widow. These spiders prefer a warm environment and dark, dry hiding places where they can be left alone, like closets and woodpiles.
Although a great many people fear spiders (some to the point of phobia, called arachnophobia), the creatures do much good by capturing and eating other insects. Even though all spiders have some amount of venom that varies in potency, the vast majority of spiders are not dangerous to people because their fangs are too short or too fragile to penetrate a person’s skin.
A spider generally bites a person because it has been frightened or disturbed in its hiding place and it is trying to defend itself. In most cases, a bite mark from a spider is too small to be seen easily, and often people do not remember being bitten.
According to the California Poison Control System, spider bites typically cause pain, small puncture wounds, redness, swelling, and itching that may last a few days. It is rare for a spider to bite more than once, so if you have multiple bites, you have probably been bit by fleas, bedbugs, ticks, mites, biting flies, or another insect.
The black widow spider bite is serious, but it is rarely lethal. If you see the spider, it has a red hourglass mark on its underside. A bite from a female black widow spider results in slight swelling and faint red marks initially, and then within a few hours intense pain and stiffness set in. Other signs and symptoms include chills, fever, weakness, headache, elevated blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, and severe abdominal pain. Those at greatest risk of developing symptoms are young children, the elderly, and people who have high blood pressure.
In many cases, the spider does not inject venom and no serious symptoms develop. If muscle cramps develop, you should seek medical care for treatment of the symptoms. A black widow spider antivenin is rarely necessary but it is available.
The brown recluse spider is about one-half inch long, including its legs, and has a violin-shaped marking on its back. It has six eyes rather than the typical eight and a tail-end segment without markings. This is an important identifying mark, because there are many other brown spiders with markings that are not the brown recluse.
Symptoms of a brown recluse bite include some pain or burning within the first 10 minutes of the bite, along with itching. The bite assumes a bull’s-eye appearance with a blister in the center. When the blister breaks it leaves an ulcer that scabs over. The ulcer can spread and attack the underlying skin and muscle, causing severe pain, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, and anemia. Bite victims should seek medical attention, especially if there are signs of an infection or if the ulcer does not heal.
If you have been bitten by a brown recluse or black widow spider, clean the wound with soap and water as soon as possible. If the bite is on an arm or leg, you can slow the spread of the venom if you tie a snug bandage above the bite and elevate the limb. You can also apply a cloth dampened with cold water or ice to the bite location. If you develop symptoms or if you have any concerns, seek medical attention. You can also call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.
ABC News, May 24, 2010
California Poison Control System
The World Spider Catalog