Everything’s bigger in Texas, they say. I recall the first time I saw a banana spider. The thing seemed to be as big as my fist. The only thing more surprising than that was discovering that wasps actually kill and eat spiders. I thought it was supposed to be the other way around… Anyway, I originally typed this after seeing a patient who was working around the house (or farm or barn as the case is around here), and he had placed his hand in the woodshed, subsequently getting bitten by a big spider with a red hourglass appearance. Of course, the mother was excited and wanted to know if he was going to die. The father wasn’t too concerned because he was just in Missouri a month ago and had been bitten by a spider that looked like it had a violin on its back (You can’t make this stuff up!).
Not a day goes by when I don’t see several patients bitten or stung by various insects, including fire ants, mosquitos, bees, wasps, ticks, scorpions and spiders. Usually everyone’s worried about a Staph infection. It’s important to note that only four American species of spiders are known to be dangerous to humans. However, there are only two types of spiders that are worth mentioning as a cause of significant disease.
Black widow spider bites are even more interesting when they’re not eating their mates after procreation (fun fact: North American black widow spiders don’t usually do that; it’s actually the Australian brand that does). They prefer to avoid humans, hanging out in outhouses, garages and the like. They become aggressive when disturbed (particularly if there’s an egg sac around), and if you’ve been bitten, it was by a female. You’ll know it was a black widow because of its red hourglass underside.
The black widow spider injects a powerful nerve toxin into humans. Once bitten, you’ll feel pain, but the real symptoms are likely to start about 20 minutes later. Among other things, this venom produces symptoms that mimic appendicitis. Patients can develop abdominal pain and rigidity, tremor, weakness, chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness and fainting. People at the extremes of age are more at risk for serious complications. Otherwise, reactions are rarely life threatening.
The brown recluse spider is native to the Midwest and Southeastern U.S. You’ll recognize this one by its distinctive violin pattern on its back near where its legs attach. As the name suggests, they’re not at all aggressive and tend to bite only when it’s pressed against its victim’s skin. These spiders like warm and dry environments (think attics, closets, basements, porches, barns and woodpiles).
The Brown recluse also injects a powerful venom – more so than a rattlesnake – who’s lethality is only limited because it’s such a small creature. Its venom rapidly destroys the cells it’s injected into, causing necrosis and tissue death (This is decreased as having a ‘volcano-like’ appearance at the bite site. The picture below is a demonstration of this.). This destruction has secondary effects in humans, including kidney damage and failure, red blood cell and platelet (your clotting cells) destruction, formation of blood clots, coma and death (rarely). Deaths have only been reported in children less than age seven by the brown recluse.
Here’s your Quick Tip do’s and no’s for Spider Bites:
- Get to the ER. Not your Doctor’s office. Not the Urgent Care.
- Elevate the area above your heart.
- Wash with soap and cool water.
- Tylenol for pain.
- Apply ice.
- No waiting to see if it gets better.
- No heat.
- No suction.
- No cutting away tissue.
- No tourniquets.
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