How to Identify a Spider Bite

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This survival-medicine website provides general information, not individual advice. Most scenarios assume the victim cannot get expert medical help. Please see the disclaimer.

How to Identify a Spider by Its Bite

A black widow spider, with its tell-tale red hourglass. If you feel pain when the spider bites, this is likely the culprit.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

I’ve seen a lot of spider bites in my day, and more often than not, the spider is never seen. Over the years I’ve developed several tricks for how to identify the spider by the bite.

There are three types of poisonous spiders in the U.S. The brown recluse is found in the southern two-thirds of the country. It likes to hide in boxes so I often wonder if it doesn’t catch an occasional ride by freight. The hobo spider likes it out west. The black widow has been found in every state but Alaska.

Here are my tips on how to identify a spider bite.

1. Evaluate the Pain

If you feel pain when the spider bites, it’s likely a black widow, whose bite is often but not always painful. You may also develop severe body aches and fever.

A brown recluse spider bite is a slight sting at best. Most of the time you feel nothing. They hide in or under boxes, under your bed sheets, in your clothes. The first you know about it is the pain that develops several minutes to hours after the bite.

A brown recluse spider bite, two months later. This is the eschar—the black, leathery, dead tissue—that can form over the wound. The photographer writes that it was surgically removed about a month after this photo.

A hobo spider’s bite feels similar to a brown recluse’s, and the pain also occurs minutes to hours after the bite.

2. Look at the Skin Damage

That’s the key to the brown recluse spider bite. You may not know when it bit you, but the bite area becomes red, blistered, or black. The area starts out small, and the redness spreads. A black spot of dead tissue develops in the middle of the redness. This dead tissue can be anything from small and superficial to deep and large—sometimes enough to warrant a skin graft when everything’s said and done. As the tissue dies, the area becomes very painful.

The hobo spider can cause skin damage, but less so than the brown recluse.

The black widow spider bite causes a red spot that’s sometimes hard to see. (More obvious: It can cause plenty of muscle aches and cramping throughout the body for one to three weeks.)

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How to Treat a Bite From a Poisonous Spider

If you can get to a doctor, do so. If you can’t, consider the following.

If you think the spider was a brown recluse or hobo:
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  1. Slow the venom’s spread: Apply ice, and keep the area at heart level or above.
  2. Prevent infection. As the black layer of dead skin (eschar) sloughs off, treat the wound as you would any other, by keeping it clean and covered and applying antibiotic ointment or honey. Some large wounds take several weeks to heal. If it starts looking infected, you’ll need oral antibiotics.
  3. Treat the pain. Take an over-the-counter pain reliever.

Some think steroids might decrease the extent of skin damage from a brown recluse bite. Sometimes skin grafts are required when the wounds are too big to heal on their own.

If you think the spider was a black widow take a pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen for the muscle cramps.

Within minutes to hours, a black widow bite can lead to severe chest and abdominal pain mimicking appendicitis or a heart attack. It can make your blood pressure go up, which may need to be treated. (Possible signs include an increased heart rate and a flushed face.) If you can’t get to a doctor, rest to try to lower the blood pressure. In worst cases, antivenin may be given.

The good news is it’s very rare to die from a spider bite.

Has anyone ever had a brown recluse, hobo, or black widow bite? How did you identify the spider type? What were the symptoms? How was it treated? How are you doing now?

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Black widow photo by Texas AgriLife Extension Service. Photo of brown recluse spider bite by Jeffrey Rowland.

  • Brendette

    let the air bust and dry the wound DONT do it yourself

  • Brendette

    vitamins helped momentarily but allowing air to get to the wound to bust or dry it out is the best still medicating with Benadryl and herbs still sick just trying to keep going because only a few people believe me my husband didn’t see the spiders so he naturally thinks im fine NOT fine and still having to keep my household running really sucks still wish I could show you the pictures don’t have the equipment to load them from my cell phone

  • Brendette

    taking prenatal vitamins seems to be helping rapidly. will see how I feel first thing in the morning but it seems as though I have found what I needed to do. I certainly hope so!!!!!!!!

  • Brendette

    oregano leaves are the only true relief for the intense pain. tried to sleep on those last night. wont do it again. resulted in woosy lightheaded state, but I found that some more of the poison had oozed out on its on with no bruising. night is the worst because the pain intensifies. I am careful to prop up my head and to keep the lavender and Benadryl by my bedside. the lavender keeps my back cool and from me getting fever. have found that the garlic was burning my tongue so now I just smell it. I did too much of that yesterday and my mouth bruised a little. it’s now pink and healthy again. desperate times call for desperate measures, some people say. desperate to not get internal damage or infection. cant wait until this is healing and better…. two words, use Lysol. the Lysol made the sick room smell better. and it gave me piece of mind. kind of comforting sort of hospital smell.. the main reason im not in the ER is because antivenin has a whole new set of risks of its own that I want to avoid if possible. plus it is a risk to get a needle prick. also, the emitted poison stinks like nobody’s business. going to try to at least lie down now. have been quietly sitting in soft chair and medicating and cleaning bedclothes today.

  • Brendette

    how can I know when the poison is neutralized?
    Will I just feel better and stop swelling? mY LAST TIME BITTEN BY SO MANY WAS WHEN I was 10 or 11 and I screamed and passed out. wound up waking up a week later to find I had pneumonia.

  • Brendette

    too bad that I cant upload the pics would be invaluable right now.

  • Brendette

    am a little nervous about swelling and possibility of infection any words of encouragement?

  • Brendette

    Oh, yes, the male black widows are brown and black marbleized look to them. contrary to popular belief, they do bite. I have small puss filled lightly pink areas. it favors an ant bite. so had I not actually seen the spiders, I might not have been smart enough to have medicated!!! I have very bad aches and burning sensations, severe nausea and headache. feels like a toothpull wound would. had a “honey sack” on my buttocks. a honey sack is where the venom can escape. peeing on it allowed it to naturally bust. I lost several inches of internal buttocks fat to the wound. the only bruising happened with the wound behind my ear because I accidentally busted the sore. it is now healed the ones on my arms are dried up as well as those on my back. concerned with swelling on abdominal and legs.

  • Brendette

    I am four days into this and still having symptoms. A swarm of various sized black widow bit me while transplanting bulbs that should not have been bunched together. any form of damp hole with lose soil and bulb vegetation lures them and as many times as this has happened to me I still missed the signs of them living there. I have always had an extremely high tolerance for spider bites and each time wind up with them drawn them to me. easter morning was when I was bitten. that morning a blood moon happened at 4 am. DONT go out on a blood moon day!!! if you have ever been bitten it is a chance you take. Here is how I have survived many times…. don’t pick the bump don’t squeeze the bump let it dry! rub frequently with lavender lotion. rubbing alcohol after dial soap baths. eat and smell garlic and oregano.. treat it like a scorpion bite in extreme cases and pee on it. take regular Benadryl and Tylenol. Cry LAUGH AND STAY AWAKE WHEN YOU CAN. keep head elevated. drink sweet tea often for hydration and potent antioxidants. eat bananas and oatmeal to lower blood pressure. little tidbit you may not know: sometimes they leave stings in or can even themselves enter your bloodstream. keep socking it to the little blood drunks. and pray because it takes a while to know if you are safe. I’m still fighting to not get an infection. I feel like I have been burned all over. it’s worse than a beating to be stung all over. if you can gently and slowly stir around as tolerated it is helpful to keep circulation good. don’t over do it. DONT shave if you can possibly help it!!!! hope you already had your shots up to date. relax. it can take up to a month to heal. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO KNOW IS TO NOT INITIALLY PANIC when you see what has happened just be positive !! If still alive after 5 minutes, that’s a good thing. This is the worst pain I can think of at present. I have been through major surgery childbirths and this is actually worse. i’m ready to feel better. another long night ahead of me. Oh, yeah avoid pinapple potted plants! And don’t group bulps plants. the leaves are enticing homes for them. regretting some of my garden choices.

  • Mike

    I feel like i just got bit on my finger but i can’t see any bites. I just see like a cut. I hope it isn’t a spider bite :/

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If it is, it’ll get rid. Of course, even then, it could be something other than a bite. Like an infection.