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Black widow spider

Definition

The black widow spider (Latrodectus mactans) has a shiny black body with a red hourglass-shape on the belly area. The bite of a black widow spider is poisonous.

This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Poisonous Ingredient

The venom of the black widow spider contains poisonous chemicals that make people sick.

Where Found

Black widows are found throughout the United States, but predominantly in the South and West. They are usually found in barns, sheds, stone walls, fences, woodpiles, porch furniture, and other outdoor structures.

Symptoms

This first symptom is usually pain similar to a pinprick. This sensation is felt when the bite is actually made. Some people may not feel it. There may be minor swelling, redness, and a target-shaped lesion.

Fifteen minutes to an hour later, a dull muscle pain spreads from the bite area to the entire body.

  • If the bite is on the upper body, you will usually feel most of the pain in your chest.
  • If the bite is on your lower body, you will usually feel most of the pain in the abdomen.

The following symptoms can also occur:

Pregnant women may have contractions and go into premature labor.

Home Care

Seek immediate emergency medical treatment. Wrap ice in a washcloth or similar material and place it on the bite area. Leave it on for 10 minutes and then off for 10 minutes. Repeat this process. If the person has circulatory problems, decrease the time that the ice is on the area to prevent possible skin damage.

Before Calling Emergency

Determine the following information:

  • Patient's age, weight, and condition
  • Time the bite occurred
  • Area where the bite occurred
  • Type of spider, if possible

Poison Control

The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

See: Poison control center - emergency number

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

The health care provider will measure and monitor the patient's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. The patient may receive:

  • Blood and urine tests
  • Breathing support, if needed
  • Chest and/or abdominal x-rays
  • EKG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
  • Fluids through a vein (by IV)
  • Medications to treat symptoms

In severe cases, antivenin medication to reverse the effect of the poison will be given. However, this drug can cause serious allergic reactions and must be used carefully.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Severe symptoms usually start to improve within 2 to 3 days, but milder symptoms may persist for several weeks. Death in a normally healthy individual is very rare. Young children, the extremely ill, and the elderly may not survive a bite.

Wear protective clothing whenever possible when travelling through terrain which is known to harbor these spiders. Do not stick your hands or feet in their nests or in their preferred habitats, namely, under logs or underbrush, or other damp, moist areas.

References

Gross KR, Collier BR, Riordan WP, Jr., Morris JA, Jr. Wilderness Trauma and Surgical Emergencies. In: Auerbach PS, ed. Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2011:chap 21.

Boyer LV, Greta J. Binford GJ,  Degan JA. Spider Bites. In: Auerbach PS, ed. Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2011:chap 52.


Review Date: 10/20/2013
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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