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Attorney Makes Case For Caution With Summertime Spiders

Buffalo Defense Attorney Paul Cambria is recuperating after being bitten by a poisonous Brown Recluse spider. and having surgery to remove poisoned flesh, he makes the case for extra caution.

"Don't take these spider bites lightly," says Cambria, a frequent guest on the WBEN morning show.

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Cambria was in the Adirondacks when he thought he was bitten by a mosquito. It turned out to be far worse.

"When I got up in the morning there was a little welt on my leg, which I ... (shrugged off saying)  ' So what, you are used to that up there.'. But as the day progressed it got extremely painful, and off I go to the hospital."

Cambria had surgery to remove skin and tissue surrounding the bite after residual venom continued to digest his flesh, days after the encounter.

From The University of Kentucky  College of Agriculture Extension Service

Brown recluse spider showing the violin pattern on the cephalothoraxSometimes referred to as the violin or fiddleback spider because of violin-shaped markings, the Brown Recluse Spider is potentially dangerous.

 Although bites are rare, the venom can cause serious wounds and infestations should be taken seriously.

Distribution and Diagnosis

The brown recluse spider, Loxosceles reclusa, is found throughout the south central and midwestern United States. Other species of Loxosceles spiders occur in the southwestern U.S. and southern California, but the brown recluse is the most notable and widespread.

Recluse spiders are rare outside their native range and are widely over-reported.

Distribution of brown recluse and other related spiders in the US

Distribution of the brown recluse spider (dark shading) and other species of Loxosceles spiders in the U.S. (light shading) (adapted from distribution map of R. Vetter, Univ. Calif. Riverside)

Though variable in size, adult brown recluse spiders with legs extended are about the size of a U.S. quarter. Coloration ranges from tan to dark brown, and the abdomen and legs are uniformly colored with no stripes, bands or mottling. The legs are long and thin and lack conspicuous spines. For laypersons, the most distinguishing feature of a brown recluse is a dark violin-shaped mark on its back, with the neck of the violin pointing toward the rear (abdomen) of the spider. This feature is consistent in adult brown recluses, but sometimes less obvious in younger spiders.

Brown recluse eye pattern--3 groups of 2 eyes
A more definitive diagnostic feature is the eye pattern -- brown recluses have a semi-circular arrangement of 6 eyes in 3 groups of 2 (pictured) while most other spiders have 8 eyes.

Seeing this feature clearly requires a good quality hand lens. Many harmless brown spiders are mistaken for the brown recluse, so it is prudent to have specimens confirmed by an entomologist or knowledgeable pest control firm.

Habits and Development

In nature, brown recluse spiders live outdoors under rocks, logs, woodpiles and debris. The spider is also well adapted to living indoors with humans. They are resilient enough to withstand winters in unheated basements and stifling summer temperatures in attics, persisting many months without food or water. The brown recluse hunts at night seeking insect prey, either alive or dead. It does not employ a web to capture food -- webs strung along walls, ceilings, outdoor vegetation, and in other exposed areas are nearly always associated with other types of spiders.

Cobweb spider in its web
Cellar spider in its web
Cobweb (top) and cellar spiders (bottom)
often build webs in homes but are harmless

In homes, such webs are often produced by harmless cobweb or cellar spiders. While sometimes considered a nuisance, these spiders actually prey upon brown recluses, and in this sense could be considered beneficial.

During daylight hours, brown recluse spiders typically retreat to dark, secluded areas. They often line their daytime retreats with irregular webbing, which is used to form their egg sacs. Adult female recluses seldom venture far from their retreat, whereas males and older juveniles are more mobile and tend to travel farther. Consequently, they are more likely to wander into shoes, clothing or bedding at night and bite people when they inadvertently become trapped against the skin. At times, brown recluse spiders will be seen during daylight hours crawling on floors, walls and other exposed surfaces. Such behavior can be triggered by hunger, overcrowding, pesticide application, or other factors.

About 40-50 eggs are contained within 1/3 inch diameter off-white silken egg sacs. The tiny emerged spiders gradually increase in size, molting five to eight times before becoming adults.

cast skins of brown recluse spidersThe molted (shed) skins of the brown recluse have a distinct "rigid" appearance (shown right) and can be useful in confirming infestation.

Brown recluse spiders mature in about a year and have an average lifespan of 2 to 4 years. The females produce up to 5 egg sacs in a lifetime. Infestation levels in homes vary greatly, ranging from one or a few spiders to several hundred.

Bites and Medical Significance

Like other spiders, the brown recluse is not aggressive. It is quite common, in fact, to live in a building that is heavily infested and never be bitten. Most bites occur in response to body pressure, when a spider is inadvertently trapped against bare skin. Some people are bitten when they roll over one in bed. Other bites occur while moving stored items or putting on a piece of clothing that a spider has chosen for its daytime retreat. Brown recluse spiders have remarkably small fangs and cannot bite through clothing.

The initial bite is usually painless. Oftentimes the victim is unaware until 3 to 8 hours later when the bite site may become red, swollen, and tender. The majority of brown recluse spider bites remain localized, healing within 3 weeks without serious complication or medical intervention. In other cases, the victim may develop a necrotic lesion, appearing as a dry, sinking bluish patch with irregular edges, a pale center and peripheral redness. Often there is a central blister. As the venom continues to destroy tissue, the wound may expand up to several inches over a period of days or weeks. The necrotic ulcer can persist for several months, leaving a deep scar. Infrequently, bites in the early stages produce systemic reactions accompanied by fever, chills, dizziness, rash or vomiting. Severe reactions to the venom are more common in children, the elderly, and patients in poor health. Persons bitten by a brown recluse spider should apply ice, elevate the affected area, and seek medical attention immediately.

Medical Misdiagnosis

Spider bites are difficult to diagnose, even by physicians. Contrary to popular belief, it is exceedingly hard to diagnosis a brown recluse spider bite from the wound alone. Many medical conditions mimic the necrotic-looking sore from a recluse bite, including bacterial and fungal infections, gangrene, and diabetic or pressure ulcers. Several recent misdiagnoses have arisen from outbreaks of drug-resistant infections by Staphyloccus aureus. The bacterium produces painful skin lesions that resemble recluse bites, and can run rampant in close living quarters such as hospitals, nursing homes, summer camps, military barracks, and correctional facilities. Similar-looking lesions can also be caused by other types of insects and arthropods.

wound from brown recluse bite wound from bacterial infection
Many medical conditions are mistaken for brownrecluse bites. The wound on the left is from a brown recluse spider, the one on the right from a bacterial infection.

Alleged bites occurring outside the normal territorial range of the brown recluse spider are particularly unlikely, given that surveys rarely yield recluses in non-native areas. With all alleged spider bites, verification generally requires finding a spider at the time and proximity of the bite. Presumptive bites become even more unlikely if thorough inspection of the premises yields no sign of brown recluse spiders. Anyone bitten by what is thought to be a brown recluse should try to collect the specimen and bring it to a qualified individual for identification. Even badly crushed specimens can usually be identified. Confirmation by an expert will help the physician decide on the appropriate course of treatment.

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