The truth about spider bites

How can something so small scare us as much as werewolves, vampires and the Grim Reaper?

Halloween season brings out creatures that put fear in our hearts — monsters, zombies, ghosts, ghouls and those plastic black spiders — enlarged and wild-eyed to scare trick-or-treaters, with fangs out for full seasonal effect.

How can something so small scare us as much as werewolves, vampires and the Grim Reaper? And should we really get all arachnophobic when one of these eight-legged critters creeps into view?

The biggest fear seems to be getting bitten, although some folks get creeped out at the sight of a spider — or by accidently walking into a web. In this part of the world, though, serious spider bites are not that common, according to local health officials.

“We had 122 people call the poison control center with reported spider bites in the past year,” said Maria Chapman, health educator at the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center of Norton Children’s Hospital.

“Of those, most people had only minor symptoms, with only one person reporting major symptoms,” Chapman said. “There were no fatalities.”

There are no formal requirements for reporting spider bites, so it’s difficult to know the actual numbers, Chapman explained. Perhaps the rarity of spider-related deaths is what puts one in the headlines, like the recent report of a 10-year-old Montana boy who died nine days after being bitten by a brown recluse spider. The autopsy showed he died from complications of a bacterial infection at the site of the bite in his leg, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported.

Other headline grabbers — surely you’ve heard about the Missouri mini-mansion infested with thousands of brown recluse spiders — have some people sure that menacing creepy crawlers are lurking in every barn and behind every banana.

But only a few types of spiders have fangs long enough to penetrate the skin and venom strong enough to truly endanger people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the U.S., these include brown recluse and black widow spiders, which generally live in undisturbed areas, such as attics or sheds, or under woodpiles. Entomologists say they usually don’t bite unless they feel threatened, and that many bites happen when the victim unknowingly brushes against the spider.

Last year’s reports to the poison control center included 19 involving black widow bites and 22 involving bites from brown recluse spiders, Chapman said.

Black widow spider bites can cause severe abdominal pain and muscle cramps, while bites from the brown recluse can cause necrosis, or death of the skin around the bite. Harmless spider bites usually look like a standard bug bite — a red, puffy bump on the skin that is sometimes itchy or painful.

“If someone has what they suspect is a spider bite, they can call poison control to discuss their symptoms and we will help them determine the appropriate treatment,” said Chapman. Treatment could involve a trip to the doctor or emergency room, she said.

“If possible, it would be best to have a picture of the spider, although obviously avoiding another bite is the most important goal, so just a description can work as well,” she said. “However, most people don’t notice when a spider bites them, so often it’s not possible to even provide a description.”

Black widows, usually about the size of a grape, are black with a distinctive red mark, often in the shape of an hourglass, on the underside of the abdomen. Brown recluse spiders are also known as violin spiders for the distinctive, dark fiddle-shaped marking on their heads.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), possible symptoms resulting from a spider bite include:

  • Itching or rash
  • Pain radiating from the site of the bite
  • Muscle pain or cramping
  • Reddish to purplish color or blister
  • Increased sweating
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Anxiety or restlessness
  • High blood pressure

As with other insect bite reactions, if you experience hives, dizziness, trouble breathing or swelling around the eyes and mouth, seek immediate medical attention, the NIH recommends.

Put the poison control national hotline number into your cellphone directory now: (800) 222 1222. It works anywhere in America, and will link callers to the closest poison control center.


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