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Learn to recognize and treat spider bites.


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Gerber Life Family Times Archive

HealthThere are plenty of things in the world that scare us. For some it may be public speaking, for others it may be a fear of high places. And then there are those who fear the creepy-crawlies such as snakes, bugs, insects, and the focus of this article...spiders.

According to the California Poison Control System (CPCS), at least 50,000 spider species populate the arachnid family. Spiders have eight jointed legs, no antennae, no wings, and only two body sections—the abdomen and the thorax. They spend their entire life catching and eating other insects. A typical spider will consume about 2,000 insects in one year, which makes them very beneficial to have around. They are, however, feared by a large segment of the population. Many are killed because they scare people, not because they are actually dangerous to people.

The CPCS explains that all spiders have some amount of venom, with the potency depending upon the species of spider. A spider's fangs are hollow, allowing it to inject venom through the fangs and into the victim—typically an insect. The venom rapidly paralyzes the victim and assists in the digestion process.

Most spiders are not dangerous to humans, since their fangs are too fragile and too short to penetrate human skin. They are timid creatures, generally preferring to live in undisturbed places such as gardens and the corners or eaves of a house where they can peacefully go about catching insects.

When a spider actually does bite a person, the bite marks are usually too small to be easily seen, the CPCS points out. Since spiders rarely bite more than once, any multiple bite marks are usually from insects such as bedbugs, fleas, mites, biting flies and ticks.

Of all the spiders in the world, only a few are reportedly dangerous to humans. Two of them—the brown recluse spider and black widow spider—are present in the contiguous United States, most commonly in the southern states.

How to recognize the brown recluse spider? Also known as the "violin spider," it's about 1 inch long and has a violin-shaped mark on its upper back, explains the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). Often found in warm, dry climates, it prefers to live in undisturbed areas such as attics, closets and basements. It is not aggressive but will attack if trapped or held against the skin. Venom from the brown recluse spider typically causes local tissue damage.

Symptoms that may be present after a bite from a brown recluse spider:

  • Burning, itching, redness or pain at the bite site, which is usually delayed and may develop within several hours or days after the bite
  • Deep blue or purple area around the bite, surrounded by a whitish ring and large red outer ring similar to a "bull's eye"
  • An ulcer or blister that turns black
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Nausea or vomiting

How to recognize the black widow spider? This other spider present in the United States that may be harmful to humans is small, shiny, black and button-shaped, with a red hourglass mark on its abdomen, says the UMMC. It prefers warm climates. Since its bite releases a toxin that can cause damage to the nervous system, emergency medical attention is necessary.

Symptoms that may be present after a bite from a black widow spider:

  • Immediate pain, burning, swelling and redness at the bite site; double fang marks may be present
  • Cramping pain and muscle rigidity in the stomach, chest, shoulders and back
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Rash and itching
  • Restlessness and anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Eyelid swelling
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Salivation, tearing of the eyes
  • Weakness, tremors, or paralysis, especially in the legs

Proper treatment for spider bites should be determined by your physician and may include:

  • Wash the area well with soap and water
  • Apply a cold pack or ice pack wrapped in a cold, wet washcloth to the bite site
  • Apply an antibiotic lotion or cream to the bite site to protect against infection, especially in children
  • Give acetaminophen for pain (never give aspirin to children)
  • If the bite occurred on an arm or leg, elevate the site to help prevent swelling
  • Seek immediate emergency care for further treatment.
  • Depending on the severity of the bite, treatment can range from administering corticosteroids and other medications, to surgery of the ulcerated area (for brown recluse spider bites), to muscle relaxants, pain relievers, other medications, and supportive care and hospitalization (for black widow spider bites).

Most spiders, as with many inhabitants of the insect world, are not aggressive to people. They are beneficial to the environment, keep the resident insect population under control, and want to stay away from you as much as—or more than—you want to stay away from them.

So the next time you see a spider, stop for a second and back away instead of grabbing a shoe or newspaper for the "final" solution. Since most spider bites happen without the victim knowing it, seeing a spider gives you plenty of time to avoid it and to allow it to go along its merry way.

For bites from these two spiders, individual symptoms may vary and may also be present with other medical conditions or medical problems, so always consult with your family physician or health care provider for a diagnosis of your particular situation.

American Osteopathic College of Dermatology—
California Poison Control System—
Mayo Clinic—
University of Maryland Medical Center—

Articles are provided for the general interest of our readers. Gerber Life Insurance is not responsible for any content and recommends that you consult the appropriate professional with any questions or concerns you may have concerning any financial or health related issues.

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