Spiders have mixed reputations around the world. Though they’re naturally efficient at controlling pests many of us can’t stand, like biting flies and mosquitos, they also inspire fear and the general creepy-crawlies in the majority of us. Though spiders are magnificent creatures that help to balance ecosystems and keep nuisance insect populations under control, they do so with an efficient arsenal of weapons designed to kill and subdue their prey quickly and effectively.
Though the majority of spiders are harmless to humans, some have fangs large enough to cause irritation, and poisons strong enough to land you in the emergency room. Knowing what the more dangerous varieties look like, and the warning signs of a bad bite can save your life and your limbs.
What types of spiders you need to be aware of?
There aren’t too many spiders in the US that can put you in the hospital, so don’t go crazy with the bug bombs just yet.
However, knowing which ones to watch out for can put your mind at ease, and prepare you to deal with eradicating the ones you don’t want around your house.
This is a well-known spider in the US because of its widespread distribution, from coast to coast, primarily in the south. Though these spiders are not known to be aggressive, their bites pose a serious threat to humans. Symptoms include:
- irritation and necrosis in the bitten tissue, sometimes leading to amputation
- if left untreated, death
These bites are incredibly painful, and if you suspect you’ve been bitten (trust me, you’ll notice), seek medical treatment immediately.
To properly identify these spiders, look for a black violin-shaped mark on its abdomen, with the neck pointing toward the end of the spider. They’re often found in cool, shady areas, like closets, garages, and woodpiles. If you see one, be sure to eradicate them as quickly as possible, and warn family members of your unwelcome guests.
This spider is very well known, and very little introduction is needed for its trademark characteristics. Their large, black, glossy abdomens and bright red hourglass shape are unmistakable, though there are some morphological differences due their wide spread distribution. Black widows are found all across the US, from Canada to Mexico, and tend to favor dark, dry, sheltered area like the brown recluses. Keep an eye out for them in outhouses, dense brush, and sheds.
Their bites are incredibly powerful, with a poison that acts as a swift neurotoxin, causing immediate symptoms, like:
- intense pain and swelling at the bite site
- muscle cramps
- chills and/or fever
- nausea and vomiting
- severe aches and pains
- high blood pressure
- if untreated, death
Symptoms from black widow bites progress very rapidly, with the severe ones listed often appearing within 30-60 minutes. But there is good news: a very reliable antivenin was produced in 1956 and has been made readily available, so there are very few fatalities from this bite in today’s age of modern medicine.
Another very common spider in North America, the hobo spider, is typically found near ground level in sheltered areas, which usually brings them to human habitations. They’re primarily found in the western United States, preferring dryer climates. These spiders are notoriously aggressive, so if you see one, keep your distance. They will often bite with little provocation.
Though their bites are typically quite painless at first, over the course of the next few hours, you will develop a nasty blister as the poison spreads and causes symptoms like:
- temporary memory loss
- vision impairment
These spiders can be a little tricky to identify, because of their common color and appearance. However, they do have some tell-tale chevron live markings on their abdomens-just don’t get too close to verify their identity.
Yellow Sac spiders
These spiders are not particularly well known, despite being scattered all across the United States, from coast to coast. They have pale yellow to pale pink bodies, though oddly enough, this color can vary depending on the prey that they have recently eaten. They typically prefer the shelter of your cozy home, creating webs in snug places like curled leaves, nooks, and crevasses.
Despite their limited notoriety as a terrifying arachnid, they are believed to have caused the majority of non-serious spider bites in the country. Their preference for dark, small spaces lends them a great deal of anonymity, making it difficult to place an exact number on bite instances, as many victims never even see the guilty spider.
These spiders are mildly venomous, their bites causing symptoms like:
- pain and swelling
- mild necrosis
- edema (fluid trapped beneath the skin)
Symptoms are relatively mild compared to that of other spider bites, and rarely leave large scars. Just be sure to treat the wound quickly to avoid unnecessary pain, or the possibility of an infection.
These are just some of the more common spiders in the United States. Some of them are easily distinguishable, others may require closer inspection to identify. If you notice spiders around your house (and who doesn’t), cautiously take a closer look and identify the species you’re sharing quarters with. I have a live and let live mentality, even with creepy little things like spiders.
If they’re not venomous or particularly aggressive, I suggest allowing them to set up shop in your home, and making your family aware of their presence. Keeping them around will keep much more irritating pests at bay. However, if you do discover that you have a dangerous population of arachnids nearby, immediately inform your family, and take steps to eradicate them.
Though spider fatalities are rare in the US, a bite from a brown recluse to an infant is much more dangerous and life threatening and can have swift and severe consequences. Call a professional exterminator right away, or take measures of your own, preferably with natural means, to remove them and prevent more from taking up residence.
Emergency spider bite treatment (before hospital)
There’s no doubt that the best thing to do when you notice a spider bite is to head to the hospital and seek professional medical attention. But this is not a perfect world, and you may not always be able to make it to a doctor right away.
In a pinch, there are some things you can do to manage pain and swelling, and stem the spread of poison before it causes too much damage.
First things first, locate the wound, and clean it really well with some antiseptic solution. You want to kill any bacteria in the bite that could complicate your situation with a nasty infection. Use rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, hold in your squeal, and flush the wound. Then apply a topical antibiotic ointment, and a wound dressing if needed.
If you’re experiencing swelling and pain, it should be perfectly fine to take something like ibuprofen or Tylenol to give you some relief. Just be sure to let your attending physician know what you’ve taken, in case there are contraindications with something they try to give you at the hospital. A good safe bet is always a topical anesthetic, which is just good to have on hand, period. Benzocaine or lidocaine spray can help to temporarily numb the area and relieve pain if it’s too intense.
If the swelling is still pretty bad, apply a cool compress. This will help with the inflammation, and in turn act as a topical anesthetic. Be sure to keep the area sterile though, sealing up the wound if necessary. If your wound is on an arm or leg, elevate the extremity to keep your blood pressure from going up and creating additional swelling.
There a few things you definitely don’t want to do when you have a spider bite. Many things can exacerbate your situation further, facilitating swelling and the spread of venom. One of those is high activity. As you work up a sweat, your heart pumps faster, elevating your blood pressure and circulating poison contaminated blood faster through your body. Just sit tight, and let someone else take care of you.
Another thing to avoid is a tourniquet. Many people have an instinct to apply one in the hopes of helping to isolate the poison, but this can actually make things worse by limiting blood flow, causing weakness, and even increasing pressure.
In addition, attempting to remove the poison with suction devices, or even by cutting out the affected tissue, can not only cause further damage and infection, but can even spread the poison to the person trying to help. Leave the removal of damaged and necrotic tissue to the medical professionals.
While antibiotic creams can definitely be helpful in treating a spider bite, make sure that you’re not using any steroid creams, which facilitate a faster spread of infection. Also, never apply heat to the area. As with other misconceived ideas of treatment, this will only create more swelling, and again, increase blood pressure and facilitate the spread of poison.
There’s not much more than a basic first aid kit that can help with spider bite treatments at home.
Consequences of spider bites: from subtle to life-altering
Not all spiders have a deadly bite. In fact, many have either fangs too small to harm us, or poison too mild to affect us. Symptoms from a spider bite can range from some swelling at the site, to fevers, coma, and death. Knowing the symptoms of a bite and what to look for can help you gauge the seriousness of the situation, and if you need to seek emergency medical treatment.
The more typical symptoms of spider bites, as we’ve went over, are typically swelling and inflammation at the site, coupled with fevers and nausea. Severity varies with the type and location of the bite, but if not treated promptly, these bites can lead to severe necrosis of the surrounding tissue.
Necrosis is when tissue literally dies, in this case as a result of the spider’s poison. If allowed to spread long enough, some patients wind up losing large amounts of muscle tissue, as the surgeon’s remove the affected tissue to prevent further damage, and the cells are dead and can’t be fixed anyway. In extreme cases that do not receive medical treatment fast enough, total limb amputation may be necessary.
Spiders that have neurotoxins in their poison, like the black widow, can even cause lasting neurological damage, though this can be preceded by death if the poison is allowed to spread for such a long period of time. Modern medicine and innovations in immunology have led to the development of antivenins, making it so only a very small number (less than 1%) of people in the US die from spider bites.
Modern innovations in spider bite treatment
Antivenin is without doubt mankind’s best and most reliable treatment for spider bites. Antivenins are produced by taking venom from the poisonous spider, then introducing it to the body of a host animal, like a pig or a sheep. The animal’s body has an immune response to the poison, which triggers the production of antibodies. These antibodies are then harvested to produce the antivenin.
Antivenins are administered by medical professionals in the event of a venomous spider bite, via intravenous injection. The antivenin then binds to the venom itself, neutralizing the toxin and stopping further damage. However, injection of an antivenin will not undo the necrosis caused by the poison. This is why it’s so important to get to the hospital at the first sign of a poisonous spider bite-once the cells die and necrosis begin, there’s no getting that tissue back.
Arachnids are a beautiful and no doubt necessary part of nature’s grand design. Gardeners in particular welcome their carnivorous presence and its help in managing pest populations that may prey on their produce. As diseases spread through mosquito bites ever more rapidly, we can look to the order of the food chain and the spider’s role in maintaining balance with these and similarly irritating insects.
However, some species can be aggressive, and others downright deadly. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the physical characteristics of the more dangerous species so that you can take measure to protect yourself and your family. Know the signs and symptoms of a bite, and have a first aid kit at the read to treat the bites as quickly as possible. And of course, if it appears to be a venomous bite, or even if you’re not sure, play it safe and go straight to the hospital. It could save you from amputation, neurological damage, or even death.