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A word from UGA Extension
How to determine if its really a spider bite
Ingram Sam
Sam Ingram

The majority of us are either afraid of snakes or spiders, sometimes both. My wife will not come near a spider in the house and refuses to believe they serve a purpose other than terrifying her. From the reports of citizens across the state, the Brown Recluse Spider seems to be very, very active.

The spider is brown with a darker, violin-shape on its back. Also called the fiddle-back spider, it’s about the size of a quarter with its legs extended. Their venom induces a necrotic symptomology of the skin. The home to the Brown Recluse Spider is mostly the Midwest Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas. North Georgia is the southernmost range for the Brown Recluse. So, how were 963 bites in 103 counties reported in Georgia in a five-year period? Could the Brown Recluse be a scapegoat for numbers of injuries?

To find an answer, University of Georgia entomologist Dr. Nancy Hinkle, tracked the spider’s reports in Georgia. “Hundreds of entomologists, extension agents from across the state, thousands of pest control inspectors, and millions of citizens have been able to find brown recluse spiders in only 31 Georgia counties,” she said. From 2002 to 2008, only 19 brown recluse spiders have been identified.

Bites from brown recluse spiders are extremely rare in Georgia. Dr. Hinkle says there is only one confirmed account of anyone being bitten in Georgia. When she first arrived in the state from California, she heard several accounts of recluse spiders and wounds.

“I found that odd since the recluse is a Midwesterner, not a Southerner,” says Hinkle. “If the brown recluse spiders in the state caused all the reported wounds, they must be workaholics moving at very fast speeds.”

Dr. Rick Vetter is the U.S. expert on the Brown Recluse at the University of California, Riverside. He studies the spiders in California, another region not home to the spider. The brown recluse gets his name from its reclusive nature. Dr. Vetter demonstrated the lack of a brown recluse viciousness when a family in Kansas collected more than 2,000 recluses from their home in six months. “They’ve been living there for eight years and still have shown no evidence of a single bite,” Vetter said.

Over-diagnosis is a nationwide problem. Florida and South Carolina have similar reports, with Florida claiming 95 recluse bites in 2000 with only spiders found in 11 places in over 100 years.

Dr. Hinkle’s conclusion so far is that the brown recluse lives in sporadic locations mostly in northwest Georgia, including the northern part of metro Atlanta. It had been thought to live in all 159 counties, but she has confirmed it in only 26 counties.

Dr. Rick Vetter says there is no reliable count of actual recluse bites, because 90 percent of the bites produce no symptoms that require medical treatment. Those bites do not get reported, and skin problems that do get reported often cannot be scientifically linked to brown recluse spiders. There are all sorts of allergic reactions that look similar to the recluse symptomology.

“There’s 60 different things it could be,” said Dr. Vetter.

The purpose of the study by Dr. Hinkle was to help physicians differentiate symptoms of brown recluse spiders and a bacterial infection called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or (MRSA). The symptoms of both appear similar necrosis of the skin. MRSA becomes serious when it infects the blood steam and has become a problem among people in crowded environments like jails, prisons, and athletes.A misdiagnosis of these symptoms can lead to death.

Nevertheless, there’s widespread fear of brown recluses, even in unlikely locations, such as Alaska and Canada. Only in rare cases does brown recluse venom cause lesions that require skin grafts to close or limbs to be amputated.

“It’s a psychological situation,” says Dr. Vetter. “People like to blame spiders. If you have a wound and don’t know what it is, people go, ‘It must be a spider bite.”’

For additional questions contact Effingham County Extension Agent Sam Ingram at 754-8040 or