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Healthy Balance

Spiders: Fact vs. Fiction

Black widow spiderThere’s a lot of hype out there about spiders.

This summer, I had a bunch of quarter-sized creepy crawly things with eight legs and white marks on their backs scurrying around my house. I just assumed they were black widows. I didn’t get much sleep.

Then a few of my friends in Charlottesville tried to set me straight. I really needed to be concerned about brown recluses, not black widows, they claimed.

I talked to Kristin Wenger, public health educator at UVA’s Blue Ridge Poison Center who keeps a black widow in a jar in her office. It turns out we were all wrong. There are a lot of misconceptions and false sightings of both of these spiders.

To set us straight, Kristin answered some common spider questions.

What dangerous spiders live in Virginia?

The only one is the female black widow spider. The male black widow spider is much smaller and can’t hurt us. Black widows are very common throughout the state.

The female black widow is black and shiny with a bright red hourglass-shaped mark on her large, round abdomen. Sometimes the red mark is orange or yellow. She is not a furry spider. Fully mature black widows can be as big as a silver dollar, including the legs.

Another identification clue is the web: black widow webs are messy and not in any order. The pretty, two-dimensional web like the one in Charlotte’s Web is not a black widow web. The black widow moves extremely fast when it’s in its web, but it has trouble walking on the ground.

Where do black widows live?

If you were a spider, you would want to be somewhere where you and your web would be safe. So black widows live in undisturbed dark places. They love wood piles, sheds, barns, attics, basements, crawl spaces and dark places under your porch.

They also can be in rocky places like rock walls or stone steps.

How common are black widow bites?

Not very, considering how common the spider is. In 2010, there were only 36 calls to our poison center about black widow bites.

The last thing a spider wants to do is bite you, because it needs its venom to get food. It’s not going to waste it unless it’s in danger.

Brown recluse in Virginia?

What about the brown recluse? Don’t we have those in Virginia?

The brown recluse spider has become almost a source of urban legend, and it’s led to a lot of paranoia and misdiagnoses. The brown recluse is not native to Virginia. It doesn’t like our climate.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t the occasional one here or there. Spiders are really good at hiding in your furniture or your suitcase, so when people move, they might bring a spider or two with them.

A lot of little brown spiders look like the black recluse, and a lot of symptoms can mimic a spider bite, including MRSA infection. Even in places where the brown recluse is native, a bite is very uncommon because it’s a very shy spider.

How can you prevent spider bites?

Most bites are accidents and most people never see the spider that bites them. If you’re in an area where you know spiders live:

  • Wear gloves.
  • Watch where you put your hands.
  • Put on a long-sleeved shirt and wear gloves when carrying wood.

Most of the calls that we get about spider bites are between April and October. But last year, during the first snowfall, I found a black widow under a flowerpot outside. The pot had insulated the spider.

What are the symptoms if you’ve been bitten?

People tend to not notice the actual bite, which is not very painful. A couple of hours later, though, they notice the reactions to the venom.

Most spider bites: All spiders inject some kind of venom. Most spiders inject venom that destroys your cells and tissues. So the symptoms are:

  • Painful swelling
  • Redness
  • An oozing blister

There’s really not much you can do for that except keep it clean and go see your doctor if you see signs of infection.

Black widow bite: The black widow is really different, though. Her venom is not that kind of venom. Her venom is a neurotoxin, which means it affects the nervous system. So instead of a wound, symptoms may include:

  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Very painful muscle cramping and spasms.

Rarely, there can be heart and breathing complications.

You definitely want to seek medical care because it’s so painful, and the doctor can manage your symptoms. But the spider bite is very survivable. People almost never die from black widow spiders.

There is an antivenin, but there are a lot of risks associated with it. The poison center can help nurses and doctors decide whether they should give it.

So should you call 911 for a black widow bite?

Every bite is a little different, and every body is a little different. If you’re unsure what to do, call the Poison Center at 1.800.222.1222. Our nurses are really good at asking the right questions, and they can even contact the hospital or the emergency room that you’re going to and let them know you’re on the way and offer treatment advice.

Wash the area with soap and water or alcohol and talk to your doctor about a tetanus shot. Just like anything that breaks the skin, there’s an infection risk.

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