Spi­der bite be­comes se­ri­ous or­deal


Sharon Austin feared the worst. Af­ter be­ing bit­ten on her right hand last month by what she be­lieves was a brown recluse spi­der – an arach­nid with necrotic venom that is na­tive to the cen­tral United States – the 68-year-old Owen Sound grand­mother fell ill with a se­ri­ous in­fec­tion and spent 17 days in hos­pi­tal, in­clud­ing three days in crit­i­cal care. She said she wor­ried she would die.

“I was very scared. Ev­ery day,” she said. “It was bad. I re­mem­ber my fam­ily was also very wor­ried.”

She said she hopes her story will serve as a warn­ing to any­one who finds them­selves in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion to seek med­i­cal at­ten­tion im­me­di­ately.

Austin said her symp­toms – in­clud­ing the large blis­ter that formed at the wound site – matched those caused by a brown recluse spi­der bite. She said a lo­cal doc­tor also told her the spi­der was the cul­prit.

But an arach­nol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Toronto said since Austin was in Owen Sound and out­doors when she re­ceived the bite, she is “very con­fi­dent” it was not caused by a brown recluse spi­der.

The arach­nids do not live here and there have been only four con­firmed cases in his­tory of the spi­ders hitch­ing a ride into Canada, said be­havioural ecol­ogy PhD stu­dent Cather­ine Scott who stud­ies po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous spi­ders. Even in the United States, the spi­ders are un­com­monly found out­doors and bites are very rare, she said.

“There is a whole long list of con­di­tions that have very sim­i­lar symp­toms to recluse bites that are very com­monly mis­di­ag­nosed as recluse bites,” she said.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble to di­ag­nose a recluse bite un­less the per­son saw the spi­der bite them and then col­lected the spi­der and then had it iden­ti­fied as a recluse spi­der. That’s the only way to know for sure if it was a recluse bite.

“Given a set of symp­toms, in Canada, a recluse bite should be way down at the bot­tom of the list and bac­te­rial in­fec­tions and other in­fec­tions should be much higher on the list of likely di­ag­noses.”

Austin said she was work­ing in her back­yard gar­den Oct. 8 when she de­cided to take a short break. She took off her gar­den­ing gloves and sat down on a lawn chair. That’s when she was bit­ten by some­thing on her hand.

“I didn’t even look; it just burned so bad,” she re­called, adding she didn’t see the spi­der.

She went in­side and put her hand un­der cold wa­ter. Later, she rubbed calamine lo­tion on the bite.

Her hand was itchy and be­gan to swell on Thanks­giv­ing Day and she de­cided to go to the hos­pi­tal’s emer­gency room. She was sent home with a pre­scrip­tion for an­tibi­otics.

On Oct. 10, she said she felt fine in the morn­ing, but her hand was still itchy and burned. But, around sup­per­time, she be­gan throw­ing up.

“I was retch­ing un­til there was noth­ing left in me. I was retch­ing so bad I thought I broke a rib,” she said.

That night, a fam­ily mem­ber took her back up to hos­pi­tal.

“The next thing I knew, I’m in the crit­i­cal care unit. I’ve got fam­ily around me and, to be truth­ful, I don’t re­mem­ber much from the next two days,” said Austin, who has three chil­dren and eight grand­chil­dren.

Doc­tors told her the in­fec­tion had made its way to her blood­stream. She had a fever, her arm was swollen and a big blis­ter had formed on her hand.

She was treated with an­tibi­otics and, af­ter her stint in crit­i­cal care, spent two more weeks in a hos­pi­tal bed. She was dis­charged Oct. 23.

Austin said she’s feel­ing well again thanks to an­tibi­otics and the care she re­ceived while in hos­pi­tal. She still has a large red mark on her hand.

Austin isn’t the only Cana­dian who be­lieves she was bit­ten by a brown recluse spi­der.

A Nova Sco­tia man told me­dia out­lets in Au­gust that he thinks the spi­der’s bite caused a large wound on his leg. He was also hos­pi­tal­ized and re­quired in­tra­venous an­tibi­otics.

Scott, an en­to­mol­o­gist, said the brown recluse are one of the world’s most ma­ligned group of spi­ders.

She is one of three spi­der ex­perts that are cur­rently lead­ing a ci­ti­zen sci­ence project that aims to re­fine sci­en­tists’ knowl­edge of where the spi­ders are ac­tu­ally liv­ing and en­hance pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of the arach­nid.

A Twit­ter cam­paign, @Recluse­orNot, en­cour­ages peo­ple from all over North Amer­ica to send in pho­tos of what they be­lieve to be brown recluse spi­ders. The re­searchers then work to prop­erly iden­tify the spi­der.

“If they are hitch­hik­ing out of their na­tive range in the cen­tral United States, we don’t have per­fect in­for­ma­tion of where they are,” Scott said.

“I’m par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in peo­ple from Canada send­ing us pho­tos of spi­ders they think are brown recluses be­cause I hear all the time from peo­ple in Canada who say that they have brown recluses in their house or in the town where they live, but there’s no ev­i­dence to date that brown recluses are in Canada.

“But, as a sci­en­tist, I’m will­ing to be proven wrong with ev­i­dence. So if some­one showed me one, I would have to re­vise my map.”

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