When Spiders Bite

No matter where you live, you'll find spiders in and around your home. Although all spiders have mouth parts that can bite, most spiders aren't dangerous to people. Depending on the particular spider, it's either because its venom isn't toxic to people, or its mouth parts aren't strong enough to bite through human skin.

Two types of spiders found in the United States can cause illness in people. One type is the widow spider and the "black widow" is the best known. The other type is the fiddleback or fiddler spider and the brown recluse is the best known. A bite by either type usually is not deadly, but it may make a person very sick. It's important to get prompt medical help if you think you've been bitten by either type of spider.

Spiders are arachnids, the same group of animals that includes ticks, mites, and scorpions. All arachnids have 8 legs. (Insects have only 6 legs.)

Identifying poisonous spiders

Widow Spider (Black Widow)

Widow spiders. Five different species of widow spiders, including the "black widow," can be found in the United States. Of these, only 3 are black, and only the black widow has the classic reddish-orange "hourglass" shape on its abdomen. The bite of any of the widow types can cause a fairly severe reaction. The black widow causes the most frequent and severe poisonings. Black widows are not aggressive spiders unless they are provoked. They generally live in dark, quiet, undisturbed areas in and around a home like closets and basements.

Fiddleback Spider (Brown Recluse)

Fiddleback spiders. Twelve species of fiddleback spiders, including the brown recluse, live in the United States. Only half of these are responsible for bites that have a major reaction in people. All the spiders in this group have fiddle-shaped markings on the upper part of their body. Besides the brown recluse, the other poisonous spiders in this group can be gray, orange, reddish-brown or pale brown. Like the black widow, the fiddleback spiders like quiet, dark, undisturbed areas in and around the home. They are nighttime spiders, so they come out mostly at night or when the light is dim.

Symptoms

A bite by either a black widow or a brown recluse spider may not be noticed at first. The bite is usually described as feeling like a pinprick or a light sting.

If you are bitten by a black widow spider, the area of the bite may begin to swell and hurt after about a half hour. The venom of a black widow spider is a neurotoxin. This means it affects the nerves and the brain. These are symptoms of a black widow spider bite:

  • Muscle cramps or twitches, usually near the site of the bite

  • Muscle spasms all over the body, sometimes within an hour of the bite

  • Severe abdominal pain, sometimes accompanied by nausea and vomiting

  • Increased blood pressure

  • Sweating

In severe cases, a person may become unconscious or stop breathing. Death from a black widow bite is rare. If it does occur, it is more likely in children younger than 2 or in adults older than 50.

If you are bitten by a brown recluse spider, pain and itching at the site of the bite will begin to increase after 4 to 8 hours. The venom of a brown recluse spider is a tissue poison. This means it can severely damage the skin around the bite. These are symptoms of a brown recluse spider bite, in the order they appear:

  • Redness and swelling occur first at the site of the bite.

  • A blood-filled blister develops at the site shortly thereafter.

  • An ulcer follows several days later, after the blister breaks and the skin falls away. The ulcer slowly gets bigger and creates a layer of dead issue. Some ulcers have reached 7 inches in diameter.

Other symptoms, when they occur, may include fever and chills, nausea and vomiting, joint pains and rashes. Several deaths have been reported.

Children and spider bites

Children are more sensitive than adults to spider bites. Deaths from bites either of the black widow or the brown recluse are more common in children than in healthy adults. It is important to protect children from spider bites.

Treatment

If you are bitten by either a black widow or brown recluse, see your health care provider right away or go to the emergency room. Antivenin is available for black widow bites, but none is available for brown recluse bites. Other treatment is mostly to ease symptoms. The site of the bite should be cleansed and cold packs applied. Tetanus shots should be given.

Prevention

Both the black widow and brown recluse spiders are shy and avoid areas of a home with lots of activity or open spaces. They prefer quiet corners of a home, dark areas under seldom-moved furniture, garages, sheds, and wood piles. Neither spider is overly aggressive. They usually bite only when provoked or trapped against the skin.

Teach your children to avoid reaching into areas where spiders may live without first inspecting them carefully to make sure no spiders are present. Webs and dead insects in an area usually show that spiders are active there. Children also should avoid playing around rock piles and woodpiles.

If you do yard work that involves handling logs or leaves, wear gloves. Shake out any blankets or clothes that have been stored in an attic or basement before using them. Carefully check shoes or boots stored in a mudroom or garage before putting them on.

You can limit the number of spiders in your home by having it sprayed with insecticide, but only a licensed pest control company should do this. Insecticides carry their own risks, particularly if children, pets, or pregnant or nursing women are in the home.