As the holidays approach and we pull out our winter clothes and annual decorations, remember to watch carefully for brown recluse spiders. These little pests like to hide undisturbed in dark, dry, quiet places such as basements, closets, woodpiles and boxes. Brown recluse spiders are native to the Midwest and Southeast, so it is likely we all have a few living alongside us in our homes.
While they are not aggressive spiders, they will bite when pressed close to the skin. This can easily happen when donning a previously stored holiday sweater or winter coat or simply rummaging through a box of ornaments or decorations.
Brown recluse spiders are fairly easy to recognize. They are usually small, approximately 1.5 cm in length, roughly the size of dime. They range in color from yellow-tan to dark brown and have a characteristic “fiddle shape” on their cephalothorax (the part of the body to which the legs attach). The base of the fiddle is at the spider’s head, while the neck points to the rear.
Brown recluse spider bites can be painless to mildly painful (like a bee sting), so it is often helpful to collect the spider (if possible) for identification if you believe you’ve been bitten. The venom is extremely potent, but a single bite only releases a very small amount into the skin. Bite reactions can vary from mild to severe with flu like symptoms. A more severe bite reaction will become painful within the first 2-4 hours after the bite. Redness and swelling develop within that time and there is often a pale, blister-like area in the center. This is due to the tissue breakdown the venom causes. As the reaction continues, these areas can grow quite large and often develop central ulceration within a couple days. A systemic reaction to the venom may include nausea, vomiting, fever and chills, weakness and joint pain. This can occur in the first 24-48 hours after the bite. It is best to seek medical care on the same day if you believe you’ve been bitten, and especially if you are having a severe bite reaction. While there is no specific antidote, the sooner a diagnosis is made and treatment initiated, the better the outcome. Treatment for mild bites includes rest, ice bags applied to the area and elevation if the bite is on an extremity. Aspirin may be helpful in slowing the localized effect of the spider’s venom. A tetanus shot should be given if not up to date. For more severe bites, antibiotics, pain medication and other anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed.