The subject of “bites and stings” has always been of interest to me in my practice over the years. In particular, I have tried to educate patients about the brown recluse spider.
The brown recluse is all but unknown in California. Courtesy photo
Many have come to me with an open sore on their skin, attributing such a lesion to a brown recluse bite. Others also have stories of friends or family who have had “horrendous” brown recluse bites. Doctors have diagnosed and treated patients for brown recluse bites. The fact is that the brown recluse spider does not live in California.
It is native mostly to the central southern states and to the lower Midwestern states. Fewer than 10 specimens have ever been positively identified as brown recluse in California, and there is usually some connection between the spider and a recent shipment of goods from the southern states. Every story about the brown recluse I have ever heard is anecdotal and not based on the positive identification of the spider.
In the areas where the spider is in its natural habitat, it is usually found in groups and not as isolated specimens. They are very shy and “reclusive” and, as with almost all biting spiders, they will only bite when threatened. The most likely source of a bite in its natural habitat is from someone putting on clothing in which the spider has been hiding.
So, what causes a skin wound that is mistaken for a brown recluse bite? Bites from other spiders and insects, as well as localized infections of the skin, would top a long list of conditions causing such lesions.
What spiders do we need to be concerned about? The bad news is that almost all spiders are technically poisonous. The good news is that of the tens of thousands of spider species, only about 20 of them are capable of biting a human. Most have mouth parts too small or weak to penetrate human skin.
It is reassuring that virtually all spiders are essentially nonaggressive and do not deliberately bite humans. The likelihood of a spider lurking in our bedding or dropping onto us from the ceiling is very remote.
The black widow spider is common in our locale. I would venture to say that every house in this area has a black widow hiding under or behind something in the garage, attic, basement, storage shed, etc. These spiders are also nonaggressive and usually have to be provoked to bite a human.
Black widow bites are very rarely fatal and probably cause death less often than lightning strikes. The most common symptom of a black widow bite is muscle cramps, especially involving the abdomen and sometimes mimicking appendicitis.
The black widow is everywhere. Courtesy photo
We also live in an area with scorpions that sting and tarantulas that bite. Neither one of these in our locale is lethal; however, an encounter with them can be painful. It is also a fact that daddy longlegs spiders are nonpoisonous.
In general, we humans have a great fear and disgust of spiders. We squash them, sweep them out and smother them with pesticides. But spiders are actually beneficial to humans, in that they eat many insects, especially those that are carriers of disease or are disgusting to us, such as cockroaches, mosquitoes and earwigs. Little Miss Muffet should have held her ground and not been “frightened away.”
For those interested in a more in-depth article regarding the myth of brown recluse spider bites, I refer you to http://spiders.ucr.edu/myth.html.