Black Widow and Brown Recluse Spider Bites

Southern Black Widow Spider


Anyone spending time in the outdoors is subject to the risk that they might encounter a creepy-crawly or two during their travels.  In survival situations, you can expect that risk to be multiplied if you’re bugging out and hiking through the wilderness.



Survival Medicine and Spider Bites



Although large spiders, such as tarantulas, cause painful bites, most spider bites don’t even break the skin.  In temperate climates, two spiders are to be especially feared:  The black widow and the brown recluse.



The black widow spider is about ½ inch long and is active mostly at night.  Southern black widows have a red hourglass pattern on their abdomens, but other sub-species may not (example below). They rarely invade your home, but can be found in outbuildings like barns and garages. Although its bite has very potent venom damaging to the nervous system, the effects on each individual are quite variable, unless you’re a male black widow. By the way, it’s isn’t always true that the female will eat the male after mating.



Mediterranean Black Widow Spider



A black widow bite will appear red and raised and you may see 2 small puncture marks at the site of the wound.  Severe pain at the site is usually the first symptom soon after the bite. Following this, you might see:



  • Muscle cramps
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weakness
  • Shakiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Disorientation


Here’s what a black widow spider bite looks like:



                                                                                                     Black Widow Spider Bite

Each person will present with a variable combination and degree of the above symptoms. The very young and the elderly are more seriously affected than most.  In you exam, you can expect rises in both heart rate and blood pressure.



The Brown Recluse Spider



The brown recluse spider is, well, brown, and has legs about an inch long.  Unlike most spiders, it only has 6 eyes instead of 8, but they are so small it is difficult to identify them from this characteristic.



Brown Recluse Spider



Victims of brown recluse bites report them to be painless at first, but then may experience these symptoms:



  • Itching
  • Pain, sometimes severe, after several hours
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blisters


The venom of the brown recluse is thought to be more potent than a rattlesnake’s, although much less is injected in its bite. Substances in the venom disrupt soft tissue, which leads to local breakdown of blood vessels, skin, and fat. This process, seen in severe cases, leads to “necrosis”, or death of tissues immediately surrounding the bite (see example below). Areas affected may be extensive.

Once bitten, the human body activates its immune response as a result, and can go haywire, destroying red blood cells and kidney tissue, and hampering the ability of blood to clot appropriately.  These effects can lead to coma and, eventually death.  Almost all deaths from brown recluse bites are recorded in children.



The treatment for spider bites includes:



  • Washing the area of the bite thoroughly
  • Applying ice to painful and swollen areas
  • Pain medications such as acetaminophen/Tylenol
  • Enforcing bed rest
  • Warm baths for those with muscle cramps (black widow bites only; stay away from applying heat to the area with brown recluse bites)
  • Antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infection


Home remedies include making a paste out of baking soda or aspirin and applying it to the wound. Dried basil has also been suggested; crush between your fingers until a fine dust and apply to the bite. One naturopath uses Echinacea and Vitamin C to speed the healing process.  Be aware that these methods may be variable in their effect from patient to patient.



There are various devices and kits available that purport to remove venom from bite wounds. Unfortunately, these suction devices are generally ineffective in removing venom from wounds. Tourniquets are also not recommended and may be dangerous. Although antidotes known as “antivenins” (discussed in the section on snakebite) exist and may be life-saving for venomous spider and scorpion stings, these will be scarce in the aftermath of a major disaster. Luckily, most cases that are not severe will subside over the course of a few days, but the sickest patients will be nearly untreatable without the antivenin. Be especially careful when reaching into piles of debris or leaf litter; look closely before you leap.



Joe Alton, MD, aka Dr. Bones

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Are you ready to deal with medical issues if things go South? If you get a copy of “Survival Medicine Handbook“, you just might!






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  1. Stephen McGehee, 01 March, 2013

    It’s amazing how many Black Widow spiders there are around my place. I have learned to always wear gloves when doing any work outside to avoid spider bites.

    Since they are normally only seen at night, it’s a good thing to recognize the signs of Black Widows. Their web is spun with incredibly tough silk – far stronger than any other spider web I have ever seen. Their egg cases look like anti-ship mines from WWII – round with “spikes” all around the outside. If you see them, know that Black Widows are nearby.

  2. DoctorBonesand NurseAmyshow, 01 March, 2013

    Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for your input!

    Dr. Bones

  3. Cedar Cat, 01 March, 2013

    As an herbalist, I actually got my start treating a brown recluse bit myself. Green clay mixed with yellow dock root and water, applied as a paste did wonders for me. Any herb store and many health stores have these and they are inexpensive. Green Blessings!

  4. Carol Pool Simmons Sadler, 01 March, 2013

    Stephen- could you give an estimation of size of egg sack?

  5. Jack, 03 March, 2013

    There is also a Brown Widow which is also poisonous. It’s been showing up around my property (So CA) the last several years. I had never seen it before.

  6. worldwatchman, 03 March, 2013

    I was bitten by a Brown Recluse in Alaska and spent time in the intensive care unit. I had a fever of 104 and they packed me in ice to help bring down the fever. They didn’t think I was going to survive. This is one spider you want to avoid. Then, years later both myself and my dog were bitten by the Hobo spider in Washington state. I had to take her to the vet and she wasn’t expected to live. She did thank God. I was bitten on the top of the foot and limped for days. It was painful. The black coloration at the bite area didn’t go away for about 6 monthes. Take it from someone who knows; if your in the bush or in the city, be aware and wear the right protection. Even then, you never know so, just be cautious.

  7. melissa, 04 March, 2013

    Are there any natural deterrents you can use to keep them away from you’r house and barns, etc.? I don’t want them getting near my kids or myself. I was bitten as a child by a brown recluse and don’t want to go through that again.Thanks :)

  8. Stephen McGehee, 04 March, 2013

    I just went out and measured one – 3/8″ in diameter. A Google Images search will show various types of egg cases – some smooth and some with the little spikes. I don’t know if it’s a matter of different parts of the country, different sub-species, or what. Bottom line for me – the only good spider is a dead spider.

  9. April Lewis Smith, 04 March, 2013

    I was bitten by a black widow almost six years ago in a damp basement helping a friend move. I felt the bite but I didn’t realize what had happend until later. The muscle weakness was the first symptom I couldn’t ignore because we were trying to lift a washing machine. I had abdominal cramps for a couple of weeks. Sadly, I experienced a brown recluse bite less than a month ago now and I think it was worse (maybe because it was more recent in my memory). The bite itself blistered and felt like a severe burn, and not knowing what it was at first I applied aloe vera to the blister site. I rested for a couple more hours after and when I got back up my fever was crazy and made me feel drugged, but the aloe helped the bite site by reducing the red streaks almost to nothing. The systemic reaction to both were horrible but the brown recluse left me with fever spikes for almost two weeks. I am still not feeling 100% after a month but I was lucky in not losing any skin. I will have a scar that looks like a cigarette burn and that little bugger got me in my bed! I really have no love for spiders, lol!!!

  10. April Lewis Smith, 04 March, 2013

    Real Aloe vera was wonderful for me and thankfully I keep about fifty plants around all the time. I wonder if it would work well with the paste as a liquid instead of water. Hopefully we will never have to use it on ourselves again, lol!

  11. krparkerone, 31 March, 2013

    The Black Widows are EVERYWHERE in Central Florida. I live on the Atlantic coast & since we’ve been here (7 yrs now), I have seen their egg sacks at nearly every friends home, our home, our business – most non-commercial businesses or residences I have been (w/ the exception of the newly constructed.) The ones (egg sacks) here have the spikes all over them & usually line the lower parts of the exterior of the home or building. They also like to be inside garages & the bottom, inner most part of overhead awnings. Just watch your back, along with the rest of your body, if you visit Central Florida! YIKES!

  12. Wayne, 17 January, 2015

    I have read that a slurry made out of activated charcoal will help draw the venom out of a brown recluse bite.

  13. Dr Bones, 18 January, 2015

    Hi Wayne,

    I’ve read that too, but couldn’t find enough hard data to include it in the article. Heck, it’s worth a shot and shouldn’t cause any harm.

    Joe Alton, M.D.

  14. David, 31 January, 2015

    The smooth ones are black widow egg sacs, the spiky ones are brown widow egg sacs. That’s actually the best way to tell them apart since mature brown widows can appear very dark.

  15. Lily, 20 May, 2015

    Just rush to the E/R and don’t fool around with these types of bites. Not worth your life.

  16. Dr Bones, 20 May, 2015

    In normal times, absolutely. Most of our articles assume a disaster has happened that has eliminated modern medical care.

    Joe Alton, MD


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