Expert Advice -- Bites: Brown recluse spider bites

We live in an area that has many brown recluse spiders. I have concerns about my children being bitten. How do I recognize these spiders, and is there anything that can be done about the bites?

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

Brown recluse spiders found primarily in the South and Midwest are one of the few in the U.S. that are poisonous. These little critters make their homes in our homes. As the name "recluse" implies, these spiders tend to spend time in areas of the house with the least amount traffic such as the closet, attic, and basement. Unfortunately, this means they may hang out in dressers containing clothes, shoes, or boots that have not been worn in a while.

Recognizing this spider is not difficult once one has seen a number of them. However, for the novice, it may be a bit more tricky. They are brown with a darker brownish violin shape on their backs. The body is usually about 1/4 inch in diameter, and their legs are a bit longer and spindly than the average spider.

The bite from a brown recluse spider rarely causes death. However, the destruction of the skin surrounding the bite can be quite significant occasionally requiring skin grafts. The bite itself is often not particularly painful. But over the next several hours, the poison begins to kill the tissues around it which is quite painful. This reaction gives a whitish appearance immediately surrounding the bite with a large reddened area around the white area. Aside from the skin problems, the poison and skin breakdown can cause chills, fever, nausea, and other flu-like symptoms.

Next: What to do if biten

 

If bitten, it is best to clean the bite with soap and water and then place an ice pack over the wound. If possible, capture the spider so that it can be positively identified. Then, seek medical assistance immediately. Unfortunately, there isn't a tremendous amount that can be done to neutralize the poison. There are a few medical centers that keep anti-venom on hand primarily for research purposes. Otherwise, medications to decrease the body's inflammatory reaction to the poison are the primary methods of treatment. Some medical centers have hyperbaric chambers (the kind used to treat deep sea divers) which are used to aid in healing. These chambers significantly increase the atmospheric pressure and are felt by some to be beneficial. However, this treatment is controversial.

Ultimately the best "treatment" for brown recluse spider bites is prevention. Be sure to shake out your clothes, blankets, and shoes that you have not worn for awhile. Try not to make piles of objects in the closet, attics, and basements that are not cleaned regularly. But when you do, be sure to wear gloves when digging through those piles the next time. Finally, these spiders can certainly be found outside as well, so be careful around the compost pile, wood pile, or other areas where debris may accumulate.

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