SB NOTE: If you are easily creeped out by spiders and things that go bump in the night, this may not be your article. If you want to keep things a little lighter, CLICK HERE to revisit our picks for Fall 2019’s top book selections. Otherwise, you’ve been warned.
For some, few things are scarier and more troublesome than finding a spider in the house. And of the spiders you might find in the south or central US, a brown recluse is perhaps the scariest. While the vast majority of people will not suffer significant tissue damage as a result of a brown recluse bite, unfortunately, some will, and it can be terrible. During the fall it’s important to be brown-recluse-savvy if you live in an affected area. We’ve got some intel on how to identify a brown recluse spider, ways to make your house less appealing to them and the best immediate steps to take if you find them in your home or someone is bitten by one.
The young and the elderly are susceptible to serious long-term injury from a brown recluse bite, and even the fittest of middle-aged bite victims can have a tough time recovering. We spoke to two people who experienced two very different, but equally traumatizing, brown recluse encounters. While these stories are rare — the spider’s name suggests it really does not want to bother humans — we urge you to file these anecdotes away and keep this info on hand in case you do encounter the elusive brown recluse.
A HOUSE INFESTATION NIGHTMARE
Adam (last name withheld) bought his East Nashville home in August of 2017 and did a full down-to-the-studs renovation. Over six months, he and his wife redid the wood floors, totally repainted, installed new electrical and a new HVAC unit. In February of 2018, after they’d finished the house, they spotted a few brown recluses under the furniture. The next month, it got worse. Adam came home to find one in the pantry, and two more in his 1-year-old and 3-year-old’s closet. So they start laying out glue traps. They were catching eight to 10 of these venomous spiders a day. Hundreds — probably thousands — were in the house.
They decided the house was unlivable, and the risk of bites to their young children was too high, so they temporarily moved out and tried to figure out how to kill the infestation. “We thought, there is no way we are moving back into this place, so let’s try to sell it, “Adam tells us. But, you cannot in good moral faith list your house on the market without disclosing a brown recluse infestation. Even with the amazing home renovation they’d completed, the realtors weren’t hopeful. After totaling the renovation, moving and treatment costs, they were looking at a potential loss of $100,000 in just nine months.
There weren’t many options left for this family and their 100-year-old home. An exterminator sealed every crack, and that brought the total spider count down from 10 a day to about six or seven a day. So why is it so hard to kill brown recluses? The females really live up to their name. They’re so reclusive, in fact, that they hide in the walls and stay completely still for nine months while the males go out to get food. They have approximately 250 baby spiders per breeding cycle, so it’s very hard to squelch an infestation without killing the females. It’s basically impossible. Females don’t walk on the traps or step into poison. Adam was only catching babies on the traps, and they were multiplying.
“It was an utter and complete nightmare,” he says. They were hopeless and scared. Scared of the bites, but also of losing the house into which they’d put so much time, care and money. Adam started to research. Hard. He read about a man in St. Louis, Tim McCarthy of McCarthy Pest & Termite Control, who had obtained a federal license to exterminate brown recluses in the most extreme (and effective) way known to man: structural or whole-house fumigation. The research on this method is very strong. It’s used to kill bed bugs and termites and will kill anything carbon-based that breaths. If you’re shuddering right now, rest assured. If the house is adequately prepped, and the method is executed by a licensed, vetted professional, it is completely safe to humans. And it works.
Fumigation is not cheap, but many turn to it — like Adam and his family did — as the last resort. In August of 2018, Tim came to Nashville and tented Adam’s entire house, pumped the vikane gas throughout, and after three or four days, it was safe for the family to move back in. They haven’t seen one spider since — except the dead ones they still occasionally find. While they do still have traps set, Adam tells us, “We aren’t even shaking out shoes anymore, really. I feel like the trauma of this event is actually behind us.” Adam is convinced that Tim completely killed the infestation. “It’s gone. The science behind it is really good. It kills anything that breathes, and it gets into every crack.” The only way a brown recluse will re-enter a fumigated home is if it’s brought in (like if you bought an old piano or antique piece of furniture that had some in it). “That guy is a hero to me,” Adam says in a serious tone.
“Don’t risk it if you start seeing them,” Adam adds. “Necrosis can be so bad in kids and older people, and they can’t stop it,” he warns of the impact of a brown recluse bite. If you see one, put a trap down. If you start to catch them, it’s time to call an exterminator, set more traps, seal your cracks and set poison out. But know that all of those efforts might not be enough to stop an infestation. We found this really helpful video about how to prep your home for fumigation. Also, check out fumigationfacts.com.
THE TRUTH ABOUT A BROWN RECLUSE BITE
Elizabeth (last name withheld) lives in a West Nashville home built in the 1950s. She’d never really considered the dangers of brown recluse spiders until one day, she grabbed a blanket and cozied up for a movie on the couch with her daughter. She felt a little prick on her forearm that felt a little like a bee sting. She didn’t really think anything of it at the time, but within a few days, her arm began to swell. Antibiotics and steroids from the walk-in clinic were doing nothing. By day five, it was so bad that she knew she needed to seek medical attention and went to the emergency room.
The doctors at the hospital gave her nothing — she had to wait it out and let her body process the venom. Elizabeth saw massive rashes pop up on her torso and bottom, she felt like she had the flu for three months, her urine was the color of sweet tea for weeks, and the skin on her arm was rotting more and more each day. All she could do was manage the pain and keep the arm elevated; eventually, the skin started to come off. She sent pictures to a plastic surgeon friend as the wound progressed, and he suggested she wrap her arm in Xerofrom gauze which has an antibiotic. She left it on there until the skin came off as she healed from the inside out.
Every so often, she had this same doctor remove the necrosis surgically. Her healing took 12 weeks. Thankfully, this bite victim is super healthy and in great shape. “I cannot imagine if this had happened to someone who was in worse health. It would have killed my dad or even my daughter,” Elizabeth tells us. These little critters are no joke. Elizabeth suggests that if you think you may have been bitten, clean the wound with soap and water, look for the spider (she ended up finding the one that bit her) and talk to a doctor immediately.
If you would like to see a very graphic image of how the bite area on Elizabeth worsened and then eventually healed, CLICK HERE. But be warned: These images are best viewed by the strong-stomached.
MORE FACTS AND TIPS
The brown recluse spider is one of the few spiders that not only can bite humans but whose venom can cause serious wounds and poisoning. The name “reclusa” describes these critters’ behavior — they live in dark and quiet places (such as basements and woodpiles), avoid people and human interaction, and typically only come out at night. But if they are disturbed or threatened, they will bite. This usually happens when a previously dark and quiet place (like a pair of winter boots you haven’t worn in a while or garden gloves you store in the garage) is suddenly disturbed.
An adult recluse can be as big as a U.S. quarter, including its legs. You can recognize a brown recluse by the unique violin-shaped marking on its back, with the neck of the violin pointing toward the rear of the body. The spider is tan to brown, with the violin-shaped marking in a darker brown. Although the violin-shaped marking is easy to identify, the most unique feature of the brown recluse spider is its eyes. While most spiders have eight eyes, the brown recluse has six eyes arranged in three pairs in a semi-circular row. There are no other markings, such as stripes or bands, on the rest of its body or legs. HERE is a very helpful article to help you correctly ID a brown recluse.
At first, a brown recluse bite site may appear like any other insect bite — a little red, itchy and inflamed. Over the course of a few days, the venom destroys the surrounding tissue and the wound gets larger, more painful and darker in color. Necrosis (or tissue death) is what happens when the tissue becomes black and forms a crust that eventually falls off. This spider’s venom can penetrate deeper into the tissues, sometimes affecting the fat and muscles. Often, the bite of a brown recluse spider leaves a crater-like scar after it has completely healed. There is no antidote for the brown recluse venom, but doctors can treat bites in different ways.
PREVENTION TIPS (taken directly from Poison Control)
- Shake out items such as gloves, boots, shoes, clothing and blankets before using them, especially if they’re not used often or have been in storage.
- Warn the spiders by making noise or vibrations (i.e. stomping your feet) before entering basements, attics, storage areas and unused closets.
- Store clothes, shoes and unused items in sealed plastic containers or bags.
- Avoid clutter. Brown recluse spiders love to hide in the nooks and crannies of your home, or in between or under items.
- Set glue traps.
- Seal small openings, holes and cracks on the outside of your home to prevent entry.
- Contact a professional pest control operator if you suspect an infestation of brown recluse spiders within your home.
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