What do you need to know?
With summer just around the corner, it is time to get ready to be outside enjoying the sunny weather. Most of us have specific things we want to do during the summer and being bitten by a spider is definitely not on that list. Unfortunately, it can happen. What can you do to prevent yourself from getting a spider bite? How do you treat one?
Spiders are everywhere and with summer coming, we are more likely to be outside and have the potential to encounter them. All spiders only bite if they feel threatened, such as being trapped between you and some object. Most spider bites are harmless and often aren’t any different from any other bug bite. The bite might appear as a red, painful, itchy bump on your skin or you may not notice anything. Only a couple of spiders, black widow and brown recluse, have fangs long enough to penetrate human skin and venom strong enough to cause symptoms others than those previously mentioned.
Black widow spiders are most recognizable by the red hourglass on the underside of their large, round abdominal area. It stands out clearly against their shiny black body. The central part of their body is about half-inch long, but, including their legs, they can be more than an inch long. Black widows are typically found throughout the United States, but most common in southern states. They like to live in sheds, garages, woodpiles and unused pots/gardening equipment. If you are bitten by a black widow, you will start having pain around the site of the bite within the first hour. Sometimes this pain can spread to your abdomen, back or chest. If you have pain in your abdomen, it can feel like a severe cramping sensation or make your muscles feel very rigid. Some people also have excessive sweating, chills, fever, body stiffness and nausea.
Brown recluse spiders can vary in coloration from yellowish tan to dark brown and have a dark violin-shaped marking on its back, which can be hard to see. The center part of their body is about a quarter-inch to three-quarters of an inch long. If you are able to see its eyes, you will notice that it has only six eyes (a pair in the front and a pair on both sides) versus a usual spider’s eight eyes (two rows of four in the front). They are usually found in southern Midwest states and limited areas in the southern parts of the United States. Brown recluses like to live in areas where it is quiet and dark, which means they will be undisturbed. If they are outside, this is under rocks or in tree stumps. If they are inside, this can be in any cluttered area (especially basements or attics), behind bookshelves or dressers and in cupboards that aren’t used frequently. If you are bitten by a brown recluse, you will have pain at the site that will increase during the first eight hours after you were bitten. You could also have fever, chills and body aches. Usually the bite heals on its own over the next week. In some rare cases, the bite area can turn a deep blue/purple color with a red ring around it and turn into a large open ulcer (sore) that causes the skin around it to die. The ulcer stops growing within the first 10 days after the bite and can take months for it to heal completely.
Each person’s reaction to a spider bite depends on several factors, including the type of spider that bit you, the amount of venom they injected and how your body responds to the venom. Since most bites are not significantly harmful, the best way to treat a bite is to first wash it thoroughly with soap and water and, then, apply antibiotic ointment to prevent a secondary infection. It is helpful to apply cool compresses to reduce pain and swelling. If it is your arm or leg that was bitten, elevating the affected area will also reduce swelling. Taking over-the-counter pain medications, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, will help to decrease the pain. It is important to monitor the bite site for any signs of secondary infection (redness, swelling, leaking pus) and, if it is a brown recluse bite, to watch for the development of an ulcer.
You should go to a doctor immediately if you know that you were bitten by a poisonous spider, you are unsure if you were bitten by a poisonous spider, if you were bitten and have severe pain, abdominal cramping or growing sore at the site and if you have any trouble breathing. When you go to the doctor, if possible, bring a picture of the spider or the actual spider (in a fully sealed container, preferably a clear one) with you in order to help with identifying it. If you were bitten by a black widow spider and having life-threatening symptoms, there is an anti-venom available, but it can cause serious reactions, so it is used in only the most extreme cases. If you have an ulcer from a brown recluse bite, your doctor will want to monitor it and treat it as necessary. Note: Very rarely are either type of bite deadly, but children are at a higher risk of death if they are bitten.
The best prevention of a spider bite is to avoid the habits that spiders like to live in. If you do have be around areas where there might be spiders, wear long-sleeve shirts, hat, long pants tucked into your socks, boots and gloves. This is especially important if you are cleaning out a shed/attic/basement/garage or handling firewood/boxes that have been stored. Before using gardening gloves, boots, clothing or tools that have been stored in one of the previously mentioned places be sure to inspect and shake out the items to make sure there isn’t a spider hiding in them. By using insect repellents on clothing and footwear, you discourage spiders from crawling on you. Don’t store piles of firewood/lumber/rocks next to your house to decrease the likelihood of spiders living close to it. In order to prevent spiders from entering your home, making sure your window screens are tightfitting, there are no empty spaces around doorways and seal all cracks. You can also use indoor safe insecticides to further ensure spiders stay out. By not having furniture pushed against walls and keeping it off the floor (legs only touching with nothing stored underneath) will provide less spaces for spiders to hide. If you do find a spider or spiderweb in your home, you can vacuum them up, but be sure to seal the bag and dispose of it to prevent the spider’s reentry into your home.
No one wants to get bit by a spider and that is why it is important to be aware of your surroundings, both inside and out. By doing everything you can to decrease your chance of being bitten, you’ll be more likely to avoid it. In case you do get bit, now you know when to seek treatment. If you have any questions or concerns about spider bites, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the Medline Plus spider bite page at https://medlineplus.gov/spiderbites.html