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America's scariest critter: The brown recluse spider

August 4, 1999
Web posted at: 10:13 AM EDT (1413 GMT)

In this story:

How and where to spot them

Night roamers

A dangerous wound

What to do if you are bitten


By Hacsi Horvath

The brown recluse and other poisonous spiders are scary, but there are ways to make it less likely you'll meet one under the covers. Here are a few of the easiest:
  • Place screens on doors and windows.
  • Seal cracks and crevices with caulking so spiders can't get in.
  • Remove clutter from basements, attics, closets and other dark, often-undisturbed places.
  • Dust, sweep and vacuum thoroughly, especially around windows and corners and under furniture.
  • Shake out clothing and shoes before wearing them.
  • Move firewood and debris away from the foundation of the house.
  • Wear gloves when handling firewood or debris.
  • Source: University of Kentucky Department of Entomology

    (WebMD) -- Most people are wary of spiders, and for good reason -- although most spider bites are simply irritating, a few can have dangerous and even fatal consequences. Some spiders, of course, don't deserve their bad reputations: Many are harmless and even helpful, eating flies and other insects. But a family of spiders common in the United States has a bite that can lead to a severe, disfiguring wound or even death. These are the Loxosceles spiders, which include the brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa) and other relatives.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 10,000 spider bites are reported to poison-control centers each year, of which around 20 percent come from brown recluse spiders. The number of brown recluse spider bites may even be higher: More than half the total number of spider bites reported are from "other or unknown" species of spiders.

    How and where to spot them

    Brown recluse spiders are about a half-inch to 2 inches long, including the legs, and may go by one of several regional nicknames, including "fiddle back" and "violin spider," due to the violin-shaped markings on top of the spider's head area. According to the CDC, brown recluse spiders are commonly found across a large portion of the southern and central United States, from Florida to Texas and north to Iowa and Indiana. Some of their poisonous Loxosceles kin, usually called brown spiders, can be found west of these areas, across Texas all the way to the Pacific coast. Any of them, however, can be found elsewhere in the country, as spiders and other bugs sometimes "hitchhike" in furniture or household goods when people move to new locations.

    Night roamers

    As their name implies, brown recluse spiders like to live in woodpiles, sheds and other dark places, as well as in shadowy corners of people's homes. They are nocturnal, roaming about at night eating bugs and hiding during the day; they are most active between the months of April and October, when the weather is generally warmer. And although the brown recluse, like most spiders, is seldom aggressive and will only bite when it feels threatened, this can happen any time a person grabs a piece of lumber, rolls over in bed when a brown recluse spider happens to be present or puts on a shoe in which the spider is passing some time.

    A dangerous wound

    Mike Potter, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky, explains that the majority of spiders have fangs too small or too weak to puncture human skin. But the Loxosceles spiders are another matter. Although the severity of a bite from one of these spiders can vary, potentially having little or no effect on the victim, a brown recluse bite also can lead to severe problems including skin ulceration and tissue death, or necrosis.

    A brown recluse bite wound, which can grow to as large as 10 inches in diameter as skin-cell membranes are destroyed by the spider's venom, can take months to heal. "The victim may be left with a deep scar," Potter says. In the case of the elderly, young children and people with compromised immune systems, the bites can even be fatal, although this is very rare.

    What to do if you are bitten

    People who think they may have been bitten by a brown recluse spider should try to kill and collect it, if possible, for examination -- hopefully without destroying the spider completely. "Positive identification by an expert will help the physician decide on the appropriate course of treatment," Potter says. This may include antibiotics, cortisone-type medications or even dapsone, a drug used to treat leprosy (there is no antivenin, or "anti-venom," as there is with black widow spiders). Whether or not the victim can retrieve the spider, he or she should apply an ice pack to the bite area and get medical attention immediately, especially if the person is experiencing a stinging sensation, pain or blistering around the bite area.

    Copyright 1999 by WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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