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Two common spiders can cause serious health risks

  • Published Saturday, June 14, 2014, at 1:55 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, June 17, 2014, at 10:55 a.m.

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If the sight of spiders and other bugs makes you uneasy, it might be for a good reason. While most species are harmless, even helpful, some poisonous varieties can pose a risk to your health.

Of the several thousand spider species found in the United States, only four are actually poisonous. And of those four, only two can cause serious health risks: brown recluses and black widows.

How can I tell if a spider is poisonous?

Black widow and brown recluse spiders both bear distinctive marks on their heads and bodies.

In the case of a black widow, its most notable distinction is a red, orange or yellow hourglass shape on its midsection. Brown recluse spiders, on the other hand, have dark, violin-shaped marks across their heads and backs.

Both spiders favor the same hideouts – dark, warm areas such as wood stacks, basements and closets. And they’re both pretty common – you’ve probably been close to them many times without even realizing it.

What are the symptoms of a poisonous spider bite?

If you’ve been bitten by a brown recluse, symptoms typically appear within two to eight hours. They start with reddened, blistered skin at the bite, which usually itch and can get pretty sore. You may develop a rash.

Sometimes, an open sore or ulcer can develop a week or more after the bite. That’s a sign of a severe reaction. You might also experience fevers, joint pain, nausea and anemia.

Black widow bites at first seem similar to brown recluses’, with pain and swelling at the bite mark. However, if you have a severe reaction to a black widow bite, severe symptoms usually start within an hour. They range from fever and chills to intense, whole-body muscle cramps and spasms. In rare cases, people who have been bitten become unusually restless or lethargic.

If a spider bites you, don’t panic.

Being bitten by a brown recluse or black widow might be alarming, but for many people, symptoms are extremely treatable.

If you think you have been bitten by a poisonous spider, remain calm. Too much excitement or movement will increase the flow of venom into your blood.

However, for children, the elderly or anyone with a compromised immune system, spider venom can turn tragic. Although extremely rare, poisonous bites can lead to blood clots and the breakdown of red blood cells or platelets, which can cause excessive bleeding, comas or even death.

Therefore, you should call your doctor immediately if you experience severe symptoms or develop an open sore and black, dead tissue.

How are bites treated?

Treatment for spider bites depends on how severe the bite and reaction are. For bites that do not develop open sores or extreme symptoms, apply a cool, wet cloth or ice pack to the bite, but don’t put pressure on the wound or try to restrict the blood flow. You might also need over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol or Benadryl to relieve pain and itching. In the case of a serious reaction, your physician may prescribe an antibiotic.

An extreme wound might require removal of dead skin from the bite area, replacing it with a skin graft. Other measures may be necessary, including hyperbaric oxygen therapy. A wound care center can provide a variety of treatment options.

Since these spiders are common in our region, the best way to prevent a bite is to be alert while outdoors or in dark spaces. If you do see a black widow or brown recluse, remain calm. As the old saying goes – they are more afraid of you than you are of them.

Francie Ekengren is the chief medical officer for Wesley Medical Center and the medical director of Wesley’s Mid-West Center for Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine.

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