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Physicians report seeing increase in brown recluse spider bites

Posted on Friday, August 1, 2014 at 11:00 am

While the brown recluse spider can pack a poisonous bite, the pest can be slowed down. An official from Cooks Pest Control says he typically finds “two or three” each month stuck to these sticky traps he uses in business in and around Lynchburg. (MCN Photo by Robert Holman)

While the brown recluse spider can pack a poisonous bite, the pest can be slowed down. An official from Cooks Pest Control says he typically finds “two or three” each month stuck to these sticky traps he uses in business in and around Lynchburg. (MCN Photo by Robert Holman)

Beware of light brown spiders with a dark mark on the back that resembles a violin.

Sometimes called a “fiddleback” or “violin spider,” its name is the brown recluse and it packs a venomous bite.

Toxicologists from Vanderbilt University Medical Center are reporting an increase in patients seen with brown recluse spider bites this summer, according to a recent press release.

Their tissue-destroying venom generally causes a painful wound and can be fatal in small children, if bitten.

Tennessee Poison Center Medical director Donna Seger, M.D., said despite many horror stories that circulate the Internet the bites usually result in a fairly small wound that heals within a few weeks.

In some cases, however, the bite can be followed by rash, fever and muscle pain, a condition known as systemic loxsoscelism.

“We don’t know why systemic loxsoscelism occurs in some people with a brown recluse spider bite and not in others, but it can be sudden and life-threatening, so it does require immediate medical attention,” Seger said.

web brown recluse”Our recommendations are that all children under 12 with a brown recluse spider bite should have a urine test for the presence of hemoglobin in blood which indicates hemolysis, or destruction of red blood cells.”

If positive, with accompanying symptoms such as rash and fever, the child should be admitted to the hospital and observed for hemolysis, she said.

If negative, with no accompanying symptoms, the child should be still seen by a physician the next day.

While brown recluse bites can present themselves in a variety of ways, Seger said, the worst-case scenario is usually a skin lesion no larger than a quarter than will heal within a few weeks if treated properly.

“The venomous lesions usually heal well if left alone,” she said.

“If physicians are not familiar with this bite,” she added, “the tendency is to debride, or cut out the damaged tissue, but this can actually slow the healing process and can result in disfigurement that would not occur if the lesion were left alone.

“Ointments and antibiotics are also not recommended, and ice works better than opiates for pain,” Seger said.

She added that while stories on the Internet can be misleading, the best way to treat the lesion is to simply rinse or clean the wound, let it dry and leave it open to the air so that a scab can form.

“Otherwise, a non-adhesive bandage applied to the wound under clothing is fine,” she said.

“Any wound can become infected, depending on what it’s exposed to, but usually open air is best for this type of wound.”

At least one local resident has reported a much more disturbing story.

The victim, who did not want his name used, said he was diagnosed with what is believed to be a brown recluse bite last fall which led to a year-long ordeal that is still far from over.

“My boots were outside on the front porch” he said, “and shortly after I stuck my foot in, I knew I’d been bitten by something.”

He said his foot became very swollen, but he “muddled along” for a couple of months before going to a doctor.

“Finally, it got so bad by January they had to put me in the hospital for a week and give me IV antibiotics,” he said, “and then they had to do surgery to debride, or cut out the damaged tissue.

“I’m still wearing a medical boot on it, but it’s finally starting to get better, and now I’m only going to see the doctor every three weeks or so.”

Dr. Eric Bouldin, the podiatric physician and surgeon who treated his injury, added the “disclaimer” that he was not certain the wound came from a brown recluse bite.

“There are many types of venomous insects and spiders that can cause this type of wound, and people can react very differently to them,” Bouldin said.

“Treatment always depends on the wound, but this man’s case was very unusual, and while we think it might have been a brown recluse bite that later became infected, we can’t be sure.

“I normally see about two cases a year that are probably brown recluse bites, but the patient usually doesn’t bring it in, nor do I really want them to.

“I’ve never seen it become systemic and I rarely see a bad reaction like this gentleman had, but the best advice is prevention and early detection. If you think you’ve been bitten, see a doctor right away.”

Kevin Sherrill of Sherrill Pest Control said treating homes for brown recluse spiders can be difficult.

“Brown recluses are very difficult to get rid of completely,” he said, “but there are ways to substantially reduce their numbers.

“Since their nature is to be very reclusive, we can treat for them, but they can still go into hiding and survive.

“One place they love to hide is under the flaps of cardboard boxes, so we advise people to get rid of any cardboard boxes and use plastic containers with lids that the spiders can’t get into.”

According to the Orkin website, brown recluse spiders may also live outside in log piles or under rocks, but man-made structures often provide a better habitat for them.

Indoors, they can hide in clothing, shoes, furniture, bedding and other dry, dark, warm locations. Storage areas such as closets, basements and cellars are also commonly inhabited.

Identifying the pests accurately can be tricky, but according to most sources it is typically light to medium brown with smooth, non-hairy body and legs that can measure an inch. The color can range from cream-colored to dark brown or blackish gray.

Although they do spin webs, they are generally not encountered there. They usually hunt at night and are seen crawling along surfaces, or hiding inside clothing, shoes, or boxes.

Residents who are aware that brown recluses have been seen in their homes might be wise to shake their clothing and shoes out before putting them on.

For those who have the courage to look closely enough, the head has six eyes in three pairs, instead of eight, and there is generally, although not always, a violin-shaped marking on its back.

Anyone with questions about a patient with a brown recluse spider bite may call the Tennessee Poison Center at (800) 222-1222.

The other most poisonous spider found in this area of the South is the black widow, but its habitat differs from the brown recluse in that it is more normally encountered outdoors under old woodpiles and in other rarely disturbed places.

—By MARIAN GALBRAITH, Tullahoma News Staff Writer