The Brown Recluse Spider
By Clifton Castleman, WEMT
What Do They Look Like?
Named for its habit of hiding in dark corners, the brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa) is also known as the violin spider or fiddleback spider because of a violin-shaped marking. The brown recluse spider is about a half-inch long (including legs) and is a solid light brown color. The violin marking is configured with the base of the violin beginning at the eyes and the neck of the violin pointing toward the “waist.” The violin marking is difficult to see clearly.
Two other features can help identify the brown recluse: it has six eyes rather than the typical eight and the tail-end segment has no markings. If you see a brown spider with markings on the tail end, it cannot be a brown recluse spider. Any markings, patterns or spots on the tail end of a spider immediately eliminates the possibility that it is a brown recluse spider. It is, instead, one of dozens of brown spiders that live in houses and yards. They may bite, but they are not dangerous.
Where Do They Live?
Spider experts across the US agree that the true brown recluse spider is native to Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Mississippi. There are many related species found in virtually all other states however, and have been spotted everywhere from the colder states like Maine and Vermont, to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, but not in Northern California, Oregon and Washington states.
In any case, the brown recluse is called a “recluse” because it hides and is not commonly found out in the open. The brown recluse will hide in dark, moist, quiet, out-of-the-way areas where it will not easily be disturbed.
What If I’m Bitten?
In most cases of bites from these spiders, there is pain or burning at the bite site in the first 10 minutes. The bite from this group is usually described as looking like a “target” or “bull’s-eye.” The center of the wound is usually a blister surrounded by a reddened area. A pale or blanched area may surround the discolored reddened area. The blister may rupture, leaving an open ulcer. In severe cases the ulcer can become deep and infected causing tissue breakdown or tissue death (necrosis).
Worsening pain, itching and a burning sensation develop. A patient may also have symptoms such as a red, itchy rash over the torso, arms and legs that is usually seen in the first 24-72 hours. Patients may have pain in the muscles and joints, fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, and nausea and vomiting.
Due to the necrotic nature of the brown recluse spider’s venom, a bite usually causes some pain or burning in the first 10 minutes, accompanied by itching. The wound takes on a bull’s-eye appearance, with a center blister surrounded by an angry-looking red ring and then a blanched (white) ring.
The blister breaks open, leaving an ulcer that scabs over. The ulcer can enlarge and involve underlying skin and muscle tissue which may grow for days – even with IV medications. Pain may be severe. A generalized red, itchy rash usually appears in the first 24-48 hours. Other symptoms include fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches and hemolytic anemia (a condition where the red blood cells are destroyed).
People bitten by an unseen spider sometimes blame the brown recluse spider because their bite resembles a brown recluse spider bite. However, there are a number of other spiders and insects, as well as other medical conditions, that are capable of producing tissue wounds of similar appearance, but these are usually of a lesser severity.
What Is The Treatment?
Treatment consists of washing the wound and applying an antibiotic ointment. The victim should seek medical attention if there are signs of an infection, an ulcer that does not heal, a bite accompanied by nausea, vomiting, fever or a rash. There is no special treatment or medication used to treat a brown recluse spider bite. If infection develops, antibiotics are used. If a wound becomes deep and infected, occasionally surgery is needed. Anytime there is a bite or a wound that is not healing and getting worse, see a physician for evaluation.
While most spider bites are not dangerous, there is a group of spiders that can produce bite wounds that look similar to a brown recluse spider bite. Unless the spider was actually seen, captured and brought to the physician, the brown recluse spider is not likely to be the culprit. Some of the spiders in this group that can cause a nasty bite include the running spider, jumping spider, wolf spider, sac spider, orbweaver spider and the brown spider, also known as the hobo spider.
Frequently, when people with spider bites call Poison Control (800-222-1222) they think there is some special treatment that is necessary for their bite. There is no specialized therapy other than treating the symptoms. Most importantly, keep the wound clean to prevent infection. If the wound does not heal or does develop an infection, see your physician. Do not wait days and weeks while the wound continues to get worse.
There are tales of people having limbs amputated after spider bites. These involve people who refused to see a physician even though they had massive wounds that did not heal and became grossly infected. A wound that may have been originally treated with simple oral antibiotics, but left untreated, may require surgical intervention in extreme cases.
What Else Causes Similar Symptoms?
Kissing bugs, fleas, bed bugs, flies, mites, wasps, ants and blister beetles have produced lesions similar to a brown recluse spider bite. Many skin disorders and medical conditions can produce lesions that can also mimic a brown recluse spider bite. Some of these include infected herpes outbreaks, bedsores, diabetic ulcers, poison ivy/oak and Lyme disease. Again, use common sense: If there is a wound that is not healing as expected or getting worse, see a physician.