Among the 50,000 different species of spiders, most are harmless. However, some do produce venom that is expelled through their hollow fangs and injected into the victim. Fortunately, most spider fangs are too small or not strong enough to penetrate human skin. But, some spider bites will leave a small painful puncture that becomes red, itchy and swollen. The toxin produced by a spider's venom can cause headache, rash, painful joints and muscles, spasms, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills. Although potentially painful, bites from non-venomous spiders are not dangerous. The danger of poisonous spiders depends on the type of spider.
The United States is home to three types of poisonous spiders: black widow, brown recluse and tarantula. A black widow spider's venom is classified as a neurotoxin, which means it is poisonous to the nervous system whereas the venom of a brown recluse spider causes necrosis – essentially a breakdown of skin and tissue. The tarantula injects venom into its prey through the hair on its body and legs, causing a severe allergic reaction that sometimes leads to anaphylactic shock.
The black widow spider is easy to identify because of its black shiny body with red- to orange-colored markings visible on its underside. This spider lives in dark places such as trash cans, attics, closets, and woodpiles and is found in parts of California and southern parts of Canada. Black widows have also been known to hitch a ride with shipments of fresh fruit and make an appearance in other states and other Canadian destinations.
Although death via a black widow spider bite is uncommon, its bite can be serious. Once bitten, the victim will notice a painful pale area of skin surrounded by a red ring. Within the first few hours, severe cramping may occur in the shoulders, back, abdomen and thighs. In addition, the spider's bite may cause itching, sweating, headache, weakness, nausea, vomiting, increased blood pressure and breathing difficulties. Although most reactions to a black widow spider bite are not severe, medical attention is paramount if breathing is compromised and muscle cramps develop. Young children, the elderly and individuals with high blood pressure are more prone to develop severe adverse reactions to a black widow bite.
The brown recluse spider is also feared for its painful bite and subsequent physical reactions. This spider is native to Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Mississippi but can surface anywhere thanks to modern transportation. The brown recluse spider prefers dark, quiet surroundings and doesn't venture out into open areas very often. It grows to a half-inch in length and its body is light brown in color. It's often referred to as the violin or fiddleneck spider because the markings on its back resemble a violin. Unlike other spiders, the recluse has six eyes instead of eight and the lower part of its body has no markings.
A brown recluse spider's bite will leave a wound resembling a bull's eye; a red ring with a blister in the center. The blister will break giving way to an ulcer type sore that will scab over. In some cases, the ulcer will get larger and affect the underlying skin and muscle tissue and be accompanied by severe pain. Within 24 to 48 hours, an itchy, red rash will appear and may be accompanied by chills, fever, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting. In some instances, hemolytic anemia, which is a condition where red blood cells are destroyed, may occur.
Tarantulas are native to the southern United States and are noted for their large size and hairy body. Once the victim has been injected with thousands of tiny hairs from the tarantula, redness and localized pain will commence and itchy bumps will surface that can last up to several weeks.
The first rule to treating a spider bite is to clean the bite, apply ice immediately and elevate the bite area. Bites from any of these three spiders should be evaluated by a medical professional.
If the bite is mild, treatment includes analgesics, antihistamines and antibiotics and Antivenin. A black widow bite may require a muscle relaxant introduced through intravenous or high blood pressure medication to guard against elevated blood pressure caused by the venom.
A brown recluse spider bite may require hospitalization if hemolysis (the destruction of red blood cells leading to the release of hemoglobin into the blood plasma) occurs and the tissue surrounding the bite starts to die. A tarantula's bite can be treated with antihistamines or glucocorticoids to ease the adverse symptoms. With all spider bites, a tetanus shot is recommended.
Prevention is the key to avoiding a painful spider bite. Avoid areas in which spiders dwell and if your path crosses a spider's web, be careful not to disturb it or provoke the spider. Be extra cautious when using an outhouse – spiders often find refuge in the lowly outdoor commode.
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