By Kevin Godwin
By no choice of my own, this spring I became an avid student of spiders. In May I was bitten by a Brown Recluse spider (BR spider) in Woodbury County, IA. This article is a short documentary of my experience. This is shared with the hope that my fortunate end-result can be used to your advantage should you ever be bitten by one.
My story begins with a short day of fishing and mushroom hunting. At the end of the day outdoors, I was nearly into my vehicle when I felt a piercing pain on the outside of my left thigh. Not seeing any obvious cause, I pulled my long pants down and found a spider at the location of this pain. I quickly swatted at the spider to knock it away and I killed it by stepping on it. That isn’t very easy with your trousers below your knees.
The spider I killed lay very flat with its legs extending outward. The spider appeared to be dark in color in the shadow of the trees and was about nickel to quarter sized. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep the spider. The evening I was bitten, I did an Internet search of spiders in IA and believed I was bit by a common wolf spider.
Later in the same evening I was bit, I was getting a mild rash that many people could mistake for poison ivy. I had muscle pain as well. However, poison ivy usually takes a couple days to set in. This rash came quickly. The next morning I went to my regular M.D. and explained I was bitten by a wolf spider. I was given a tetanus shot along with antihistamine and antibiotics.
Day 1-2: This is my leg a little over a day after I was bit. (I believe the scratches beside the bite are from me swatting at the spider to get it off of my leg.)
Day 3 – My rash was calming down and was drying up. The pain was subsiding, and at no time did this rash ever itch. At this time I thought everything was going to be just fine.
Evening of Day 3 and Day 4 – Just when things were going good, I woke and could barely walk due to the pain in my flesh. I immediately went back to my family doctor and they took x-rays and also found I had developed an infection. I was given more medication for it. The progression of the rash and pain had begun to rapidly increase. Later on this day, I was in a dermatology office seeing specialists. This was my leg at about that time.
A dermatologist walked in and looked at my leg and walked out just as quickly. He returned with a large medical book and opened it to photos of spiders. “Kevin, your rash is not consistent with a wolf spider bite. Did the spider look like this one?” My reply, “I guess so, but the spider I killed looked darker.” I would later learn BR spiders can vary in color range from tan to light charcoal. I was bitten by a Brown Recluse spider, not a wolf spider! The specialists began treating me with oral medication as well as many-many hypodermic shots around my rash area. Through this entire process I would get many more shots. By the time the day was done, I felt awful, I was sore, and I was sick from the medications. I was told I was very lucky to get treatment started early for such a bite. I saw photos of the horrible damage the toxins can do to the human body. Do an Internet search for BR spider bite wounds and see for yourself, you will find photos much worse than I ever went through. If you have a weak stomach you may want to prepare yourself for some of the photos.
My own family doctor told me BR spiders do not come this far north and that they are only in southern IA and parts further south. The following map is a common published range of BR spiders but it is not the full range as I learned. My dermatologist told me they have treated people outside of the known natural range of the spider. They can also be transported in furnishings and boxes from their traditional range and can colonize in climate controlled buildings as well.
Day 6 – The location of the single spider bite is very clear and a spot about the size of a pea has fallen out of my leg. The pain is getting intense while the doctors keep working at containing the spread of the venom.
Day 8 – The rash continues to spread and will eventually reach from my knee up to my hip before it begins to retreat after it is under control. The pain in my skin is going away at this time as I lose feeling in the upper layers. The underlying muscle is very painful. At this time it was unknown how much damage would result.
Day 11 – The extent of the damage is expected to be only a few square inches at most. The upper layers of skin are sinking inward and I have no feeling in the dark area. (The odor at this time wasn’t very pleasant.)
Day 13 – My wound has been cleaned and it is expected I will make a full recovery without having any further issues. The fast action has been successful. I will have several subsequent days with my wound being bandaged.
Day 31 – The pain in my leg is mostly gone and could be described as mostly tender. I have just completed one month of medication and now I’m done. I am one of the very few that came through this with just a blemish. I was one of the very few lucky ones!
What I learned that might help you:
To limit any potential long-term physical damage, get to a specialist as soon as possible. The longer you wait the more damage may develop.
Most people bit by a BR spider do not feel the bite itself. I felt mine probably because the spider was trapped between my pants and my leg. If you find the spider, take it with you for proper identification or take a photo.
Don’t trust that BR spiders are limited in range to a published map. BR spiders can also have a variation of color; they are not just “brown”. The violin shape on top of their head and thorax best identifies them. Don’t assume the spider was a wolf spider common in IA like I did.
During this ordeal, I attempted to post what was going on with my leg on iowasportsman.com while going through treatment. A little bit more of the story can be found there. Please understand I got a few days mixed up and I also had some typo-errors. I was taking several medications for pain and sleep assistance at the time.
I am one of the very few lucky persons bitten by a BR spider and escaped with just a blemish. If you should ever be bitten, be proactive and get to a specialist ASAP.