As a kid, spiders freaked me out; even touching a picture of one gave me the willies. The worst was in 1983, when I was on a mission trip to Haiti. One night I was getting in bed, when I decided to pull back the covers first. I peeled the sheet back a little, and a large black beetle ran out. Weird, I thought, what else is in there? Peeling back a little more, a lizard ran out. A little more, another beetle. Tired of that game, I yanked the sheet all the way back and there was a scorpion.
Hairs standing on end, I thought, “what if I had climbed in without looking?” After 5 minutes I worked up the courage to flick the bottom sheet to toss the beast on the floor, where I kept stomping and jumping back, I’m sure yelping too, until it was dead. Then for the only time in my life, I said, “I need a drink,” and sought a bar.
While we do have the rare scorpion in Louisiana, far more worrisome arachnids are ticks. Ticks encounters are more common in the fall, when they are most active and their human targets are back outside in cooler weather. Ticks don’t sting like scorpions, but they can transmit some nasty infections. The two deadliest are Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and it’s cousin, Erlichiosis. After a bite, the victim develops fever, headache, and fatigue. Days later a rash of tiny spots appears all over, and the patient gets deathly ill. Another tick-borne infection is Lyme disease. This starts with a rash that looks like a target- central redness surrounded by a pale ring, in turn surrounded by a red ring. If undiagnosed, Lyme can later cause joint pain and swelling and heart and nerve damage.
Fortunately, all these infections are more rare in Louisiana than other states. Lyme is found more north, and despite it’s name Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is mostly in the mid-atlantic states. However, you can get them, so avoid tick bites. If hiking in the woods, use bug spray on your socks and pants, and tuck your pants into your socks (ticks climb upward). When showering later, inspect yourself for ticks- they can be tiny and sneaky. If you pull them off within 24 hours, you greatly decrease your chance of disease.
Enough about scorpions and ticks; we need to talk about the most common arachnid we encounter- spiders. Spiders have an undeserved reputation as bad guys. But only once in 24 years of practice have I seen a bite from the worst of American spiders- the Black Widow.
The 15 year-old farm boy had left his boots in the barn. That morning when he put them on, without socks, he felt a pinprick between two toes. Thinking nothing of it, he went to work. That afternoon he began to feel lousy- sweaty, crampy, and weak. He came into the Emergency Department pale, damp, and breathing hard. After hearing his story, it was pretty clear what happened. We admitted him to the Intensive Care Unit for fluids, muscle relaxers, and pain medication, and he eventually recovered.
The other “bad” spider in our area is the Brown Recluse. This spider’s bite is also rare. When bitten, the victim usually feels nothing. However, over the next few days the bite site can get red, swell, and develop a bluish blister of dying tissue. It looks like an abscess (or “boil”), but with blue-black tones and an open wound where the skin has died.
Because of what the Brown Recluse bite looks like, many assume every boil is a spider bite. Day after day kids and adults come to the Emergency Department complaining of a “spider bite,” when the vast majority of these are due to other skin traumas like cuts and scratches and mosquito bites, that become infected.
Though unusual, you don’t want a spider bite in the first place, so it’s best to avoid putting your hands and feet where spiders live. Both Brown Recluses and Black Widows like dark areas, only biting when their hiding spots are invaded. So wear heavy gloves when putting your hands in wood piles or other dark spaces. Keep household and outdoor storage uncluttered- spiders love to hide in old yard debris piles and stacks of bricks.
And keep your boots indoors!