Archive for Thursday, July 1, 1993


July 1, 1993


Spider-bite cases have substantially increased during the last month at the Kansas University Medical Center, and nobody is sure why.

Physicians at the medical center in Kansas City, Kan., say they've seen a surprising number of what they think are bites from a brown recluse -- one of Kansas' two most poisonous spiders.

``We've seen probably 10 in the last month, which is really quite a few,'' said Dr. John Jeter, an assistant clinical professor at the center. Also, the center has received a number of calls from physicians who had questions about treating spider bites, he said.

Spider bites are up this month ``unless something out there is mimicking the brown recluse,'' Jeter said.

From June 11 through 20 Lawrence Memorial Hospital's emergency room has dealt with eight cases of probable spider bites. One was a 5-year-old boy who spent a week in the hospital on intravenous, antibiotic treatment.

``Usually you go a couple months without seeing them and now there's been a couple in a week,'' said Dr. Donald Ables, at Lawrence Memorial. ``It seems like we have seen a few more.''

One spider expert in Lawrence finds the increase perplexing.

In looking at the large amount of rain this season, George Byers, a professor emeritus in entomology, said it is doubtful the weather is responsible for the increase in spiders

``The brown recluse is mainly one that hides in warm, dry places,'' he said. ``So it's generally found in upstairs or in attics.''

Byers said more moisture helps some insects -- such as the mosquito -- and is detrimental to others. He wondered whether the rain has produced more insects for the spiders to eat, thus increasing their ability to survive.

There are two dangerous types of spiders in Kansas: the brown recluse, loxosceles reclusa, and the black widow, said Greg Olmsted of the Lawrence Douglas County Health Department.

The brown recluse is a smooth (not hairy) spider with a violin shape on its back. When bitten by one, a person may not even know it for 24 hours.

It feels much like a mosquito bite, said Olmsted.

But its effects are more severe. After the bite a blister may appear with some tingling and redness. After 24 hours the blister will turn white or blue and may be surrounded by a red, sore spot two to three inches in diameter. Other symptoms include fever, headache and pains in the joints.

Five percent of the blisters or less will turn into an ulcer and leave a scar, said Jeter.

On rare instances a victim will have an allergic reaction to the bite, compounding the problem, Jeter said. In children, complications such as hemolytic anemia -- whose symptoms are fatigue and breathlessness -- can occur.

Although a female black widow has a venom 15 times as poisonous as that of a rattlesnake -- keep in mind a snake injects a much larger portion of venom than a spider -- she is less of a threat in Kansas because of her scarcity and non-aggressive lifestyle, say the experts.

``Black widows are mostly in the southern states,'' said Byers. ``I can't think of ever finding one in Kansas, but they are in Kansas.''

Also, the way the two species of spiders collect and eat food subjects humans to the brown recluse a lot more often than the black widow.

First of all, a brown recluse likes warm, dry, dark places such as crawl spaces, attics and other places in the home.

Secondly, the brown recluse hunts its food, while a black widow spins webs and traps its prey.

``So the brown recluse is walking around your house looking for stuff to eat,'' said Byers. ``So it may hide in such things as a towel hanging on a peg or a jacket on a chair and the spider is annoyed to be rolled up into a ball when you use your towel . . . and it bites you.''

Byers added that this is rare and that recluses do not tend to hide in such places but will when looking for a quick hiding place when a light comes on.

In the unlikely event someone is bitten by a black widow -- shiny and black with a red hourglass-shaped spot on its underside -- the person should get to a hospital immediately, said Olmsted.

Symptoms of the widow's bite include severe muscle cramps and temporary paralysis. The paralysis is extremely dangerous if it reaches the respiratory system and jeopardizes the victim's breathing, Jeter said.

Hospitals have an anti-serum specifically to remedy the black widow's bite, Jeter said. ``I would suggest that if you do get bit by a spider and kill it don't throw it away. Bring it with you to the hospital. If we know for a fact that it's a brown spider bite when somebody came in, we would treat them differently.''

There are drugs only to be used with spider bites, he said.

Olmsted said he and his colleagues are happy to identify spiders for people who bring them in.

``That would be the most important message: Bring in the spider . . . preferably not alive,'' he said.

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