Black Widow and Brown Recluse Spider Bites

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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.

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.

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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