Medical toxicologists from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, have warned of a recent increase in brown recluse spider bites. Although bites from this spider are almost always harmless, in rare cases they can lead to life-threatening complications.
Also known as the violin spider, a brown recluse spider is most easily recognized by the violin-shaped marking on its back. It can range in color from cream-colored to all shades of brown or even a blackish gray.
Like all spider bites, the bite of the brown recluse may have two separate components. The most common component is simply the injury on the surface of the skin, known as the cutaneous lesion.
Rarely, there may also be a systemic reaction to spider bites. In brown recluse bites, this systemic reaction may include a syndrome called systemic loxsoscelism, which consists of a fever, rash and muscle pain. Systemic loxsoscelism may also sometimes be accompanied by hemolysis, in which the membranes of the red blood cells rupture. Hemolysis can be life threatening, particularly in children.
“We don’t know why systemic loxsoscelism occurs in some people with a brown recluse spider bite and not in others, but it is life-threatening and does require immediate medical attention,” said Tennessee Poison Center Medical Director Donna Seger, MD.
In spite of the theoretical risk, there has never been a proven case of a brown recluse bite leading to a person’s death.
Don’t panic; treat most bites at home
Seger emphasized that nearly all brown recluse bites heal fine on their own, and that ice is the best treatment. Unless suffering from fever, muscle pain or rash, adults bitten by brown recluses may be better off avoiding the doctor.
“If physicians are not familiar with this bite, the tendency is to debride and cut out the lesion,” Seger said. “This actually slows the healing process and can result in disfigurement that would not occur if the lesion were left alone. Ointments, antibiotics and dapsone are not recommended. Ice works better than opiates for pain.”
Seger recommends greater caution in children who are bitten, however.
“Our recommendations are that all children under 12 years of age with a brown recluse spider bite should have a urine test for the presence of hemoglobin in blood, which indicates hemolysis,” Seger said.
“If the urine is positive for blood and/or the child has other signs of systemic loxsoscelism, the child should be admitted and observed for hemolysis. If the urine dip is negative, and there are no other signs of systemic loxsoscelism, the child should be seen by a physician the next day.”
Although most brown recluse bites are harmless, it’s better to avoid getting bitten at all. The best method to avoid bites is to keep the spiders out of your house in the first place, since it can be almost impossible to expel them once they take up residence. People living in areas with brown recluses should therefore seal up any areas where a spider might enter, such as around doors, windows and attics.
Brown recluses are drawn to dark, cluttered spaces, such as woodpiles and storage areas. Therefore, woodpiles should be kept away from houses, ideally up off the ground and covered by a tarp. Storage areas such as garages and sheds should be kept neat and clean, and all items should be sealed in plastic bags or taped up boxes to prevent spiders from entering. Caution (and ideally gloves) should be used when retrieving items from these areas.
If spiders do move into your home, you can reduce your chance of bites by pulling the bed away from the wall and not using bed skirts, never leaving clothing on the floor and shaking out shoes before putting them on.
Sources for this article include:
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