What to do if you get bitten by a black widow spider

what-to-do-black-widow-spider

Let’s face it: Black widow spiders look and sound scary.

In most of the United States, however, these 8-legged critters are a fact of life. Therefore, knowing what to do if you get bitten is essential.

So, what do you do if you get bitten by a black widow spider?

The short answer: With young children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised, head to the doctor right away. For generally healthy adults, stay calm and monitor for signs and symptoms that could spell trouble. Be ready to seek medical care if things worsen or you start to feel unwell.

If you’re looking to be prepared for any eventually, it’s critical that you know the ins and outs of dealing with black widow spider bites. Up next, I’ll walk you through the basics of black widow bites so you know what to look out for if you get bitten.

NOTE: This article is for informational purposes only and it is not a substitute for professional medical care. The author of this article and this website take no responsibility for your actions and they highly encourage you to seek out appropriate medical training if you want to perform any of the skills discussed in this article. When in doubt, see a medical professional right away.

Where are black widow spiders found?

There are actually multiple species of black widows that live all over the United States (yes, they’ve been spotted in Alaska on occasion). Here’s what you need to know:

  • Northern Black Widow (Latrodectus variolus): Found mostly in the eastern US, as far west as Oklahoma and Kansas. It is found as far north as southern Canada. The females of the northern species have the distinctive red “hourglass” marking on its abdomen but the marking is split in the middle.
  • Southern Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans): Dispersed around the southeastern parts of the US, as far west as Texas and as far north as Ohio. Females of the southern species also have the characteristic red hourglass marking on their abdomen, but it is generally more pronounced than what you see on the northern variety.
  • Western Black Widow (Latrodectus hesperus): Found throughout the western parts of North America, as far south as California and as far north as southern Canada, near the US border. The females of the western species usually have a red hourglass marking, but it can also be yellow or white.

There’s also a fourth species, the brown widow (Latrodectus geometricus), which is found throughout the southern US. These spiders are generally smaller, lighter in color (hence the name) and often have orange hourglass patterns rather than red. Plus, their venom is generally regarded as less toxic than that of the 3 primary black widow species in North America.

Are black widow bites common?

Thankfully, black widow bites are actually not very common. In fact, according to the University of California, bites from these spiders are fairly rare, even in places where the spiders themselves are very common. 

The Encyclopedia Britannica has even stated that, while a black widow spider bite is believed to be deadly to young children and the elderly, there haven’t been any reports of adult fatalities in the US in a very long time.

Signs and symptoms of a black widow spider bite

Interestingly, many people don’t even know that they’ve been bitten by a black widow spider until quite a while afterward. This is because the bite itself is often no more painful than that of a pin prick or any other spider bite that you might get.

As a result, we often rely more on signs and symptoms to identify potential black widow bites.

When a black widow bites, it normally injects a venom with a powerful neurotoxin that affects the body’s nervous system. As a result, common signs and symptoms include:

  • Mild to severe pain at the bite site
  • Swelling and redness at the bite site
  • Small fang marks around the bite

In more severe cases, people with a bad reaction to the bite might experience the following within about 30-60 minutes (though it can take up to about 12 hours for symptoms to develop):

  • Stiff muscles, muscle cramps, and spasms
  • Sweating
  • Stomach, back, or chest pain
  • Restlessness or stupor
  • Very high blood pressure
  • Very high heart rate
  • Headache
  • Sharp pain
  • Seizures
  • Chills and fever
  • Nausea and vomiting

However, these severe signs and symptoms are, thankfully, not all that common. They are more of a concern in children, the eldery, and the immunocompromised, but most people exhibit relatively mild pain and discomfort. 

How to treat a black widow spider bite

First things first, if someone gets bitten by a black widow spider and they’re exhibiting any of the severe signs and symptoms that I listed above, they should be seen by a doctor right away. Any children, older adults, or immunocompromised individuals should also be taken to a hospital as quickly as possible.

When in doubt, it’s best to go to the hospital or call poison control for more guidance.

At the hospital, the nurses and doctors will conduct a thorough physical examination and will get a detailed patient history to determine if the black widow bite is the cause of the issue. If so, most of the treatment will be focused on relieving pain and managing the signs and symptoms so they don’t get worse.

Doctors might treat using various medications that can reduce muscle pain and spasms. There is an antivenom for black widow spider bites that’s available in the United States, which is sometimes used in severe cases where a patient needs to be hospitalized.

That being said, the real concern for most people with black widow spider bites is pain management and infection prevention.

For people with mild to moderate symptoms, general rest and OTC analgesics (pain relievers) are often more than enough. A thorough cleaning of the bite site is also important to prevent infections.

But, again, if you’re concerned about a potential black widow bite, don’t hesitate to contact a doctor.

Final Thoughts

Black widow spider bites are a possibility for most people in the United States. While people can and do show severe signs and symptoms after a bite, most adults have mild to moderate pain and few other issues.

The key with black widows is to avoid getting bitten in the first place. If you live somewhere with a particularly large population of them, be mindful of spiders that might be lurking in cool, dark places, like your garage or basement.
Finally, even though black widow spider bites usually aren’t dangerous, it’s always best to be conservative and seek medical attention if you experience anything more than mild pain and swelling at the bite site.

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