SITUATION: You’re dozing in your tent during an overnight at a popular campground when you become aware of a pinching sensation on your arm. You assume it’s nothing more than a hungry mosquito — until someone in your tent announces that they’ve discovered a poisonous brown recluse spider. Suddenly you feel feverish and develop chills and cold sweats. Is it venom setting in … or just panic? Do you have a venomous spider bite?
Solution: The majority of spiders found in the U.S. are venomous. But that’s somewhat misleading, because most deliver only enough venom to harm, ahem, a fly.
Some species, however — like the brown recluse — can be dangerous and even deadly to humans. “Of all of the known spiders, only a few have venom potent enough to cause symptoms in humans,” says Dr. Seth Haplea, a neurologist. “In the U.S., only the female black widow spider can cause serious neurological dysfunction.”
In dealing with suspected venomous spider bites, it is important to mention a few caveats: Many insects bite; many people develop adverse reactions to any insect bite; identifying a spider bite is notoriously difficult; and, generally, spiders are not aggressive.
It’s also important to note that you should not expect to see the two telltale spider “fang” marks on the wound site. If you suspect a spider has bitten you and a venomous species has been spotted nearby, the first step is to secure the spider or at least snap a picture of it (you can post it on Instagram later). An emergency room physician will be greatly assisted if the spider in question can be identified.
Depending on the size of the spider, the size of the victim and the location of the bite, symptoms might take hours or days to become apparent. This usually includes pain at the bite site and initial swelling. Additional symptoms (depending on the type of spider) might include large welts, swelling in glands and lymph nodes, headache, fever, nausea and respiratory trouble — and, in the case of a serious black widow bite, paralysis.
If you’ve been bitten on an extremity, lower it to a level below the heart to reduce the spread of venom. Use an ice pack wrapped in a cloth to reduce swelling, as well as topical antihistamine, if available.
A bite from one of the venomous species noted above should be considered a medical emergency that demands a trip to the emergency room. Do you need to be medevaced? No, unless you’re days from a hospital. Field dress the wound, hike out and drive to the ER.
Josh Piven is the co-author of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Visit joshuapiven.com.