You might have seen our articles and videos on snakebite, but in a survival scenario, and really, everyday life, you will see a million insects for every snake; so many, indeed, that you can expect to regularly get bitten by them. Insect bites usually cause pain with local redness, itching, and swelling, but are rarely life-threatening, although some fleas and mosquitoes can transmit some pretty nasty diseases.
This time, we’ll talk about spider bites, and for a very specific reason. My lovely wife, Nurse Amy, has what we suspect is a brown recluse bite. As you know, we’re big on gardening and Amy spends a lot of time putting her green thumb to work growing some food. Well, there are bugs in any garden, and wouldn’t you know it, Amy got bitten by something. It started off as a blister, but then eroded the skin before stabilizing, and is now slowly healing.
Although tarantulas and other large spiders 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. Today, we’ll talk about the brown recluse.
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 that it’s difficult to identify them from this characteristic.
Victims of brown recluse bites report them to be painless at first, but then may experience these symptoms:
- Pain, sometimes severe, after several hours
- Nausea and vomiting
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. Areas affected may be quite extensive. The same venom that acts to liquefy an insect’s innards for consumption causes the “flesh rotting” effect in human wounds.
A common appearance of a brown recluse bite is the formation of a reddish blister, surrounded by a bluish area, with a narrow whitish separation between the red and blue, giving a “bull’s-eye” pattern. In some people, however, very little effect is noted or the appearance can be quite variable, as seen in the above image of Nurse Amy’s bite.
Once bitten, the human body activates its immune response as a result. Immune reactions can go haywire, destroying red blood cells and kidney tissue, and sometimes 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
- Enforcing bed rest in severe cases
- Warm baths for those with muscle cramps due to black widow bites, but 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. The same method, using olive oil and turmeric in combination, is a time-honored tradition. Dried basil has also been suggested; crush between your fingers until it becomes a fine dust, then 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 vacuum 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” exist and may be life-saving for venomous spider and even 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.
Now, brown recluses are relatively new in Florida, but have been frequently reported recently in Florida, usually in the North. In the year 2000 alone the Florida Poison Control Network had recorded nearly 300 alleged cases of brown recluse bites in the state. Having said that, other infections or bites may appear similar, and some doctors feel that the brown recluse is often blamed for reactions that have nothing to do with it. other insect bites and some infections may also be the culprit.
Amy’s bite is getting better, but it’s important to know that spiders exist and to keep a close eye out for them as you tend to your survival garden.
Joe Alton, MD
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