On the 24th January 2012 during a normal workday, Linda Haussman felt what she described as a mosquito bite halfway down her shin. By Friday, what had been an itchy area now ‘looked a bit different’. In hindsight, Linda said that she should have gone to the doctor then.
Instead, she waited. Over the weekend this itchy area started to resemble a hole left by a scratched pimple.
By Sunday the sore area had grown to the size of her little fingernail, with a hole in the middle that ‘looked like a flesh-eating disease’.
Linda recalls walking her dog when all of a sudden her leg began stinging ‘like salt in an open wound’. It hurt so badly she wept.
Monday morning she was at the doctor. He told her it was likely an infected white-tailed spider bite and added that everyone reacts differently to the bites. The stinging pain she had experienced was due to raw nerves being exposed to air.
Because Linda’s bite was on the front of her shin, there was no fat behind it and the bite was right on her bone. This has meant a long and tedious healing process.
To begin with, Linda had to lie on a sofa with her leg elevated for 4-5 hours per day. She was at the doctor to get the dressing over the ‘open weeping hole’ changed twice a week. The hole smelt really bad due to infection. Nurses had to maintain a close watch on this infection, taking tissue samples that caused pain enough to take Linda’s breath away.
It was not until early April, over two months after the incident, that Linda could resume walking her dogs.
As of mid-April, Linda could keep each dressing on for 5 days before needing to change it. The hole in her leg was finally beginning to shrink.
Linda was told that there are several factors that affect the severity of a white-tailed spider bite:
- What the spider has last eaten (white-tailed spiders are said to be harmless themselves but in eating daddy long legs, they get poison on their teeth that can transfer to a bite)
- Where you are bitten
- Personal reaction (random)
Linda went at least three days too late to the doctor. Her advice?
“As soon as it looks like it’s not a normal bite, go to the doctor and get it checked out.”
Linda Haussman, spider-bite victim
When I first started writing this post, I intended to attack white-tails as a scourge in New Zealand. However, in looking through academic articles I could find little science to validate the white-tailed spider as the cause of flesh-eating wounds.
A 2004 article in the New Zealand Medical Journal discussed weakness in evidence identifying white-tailed spiders as the cause of these wounds and recognised debate as to whether white-tailed spider venom is toxic to humans. People generally do not see a spider biting them, which raises doubt about the complicity of white-tailed spiders in these wounds.
In a 2010 newspaper article in The Northern Advocate Ruud Kleinpaste, described as a ‘bugman’, says white-tailed spider bites are an urban myth. ‘Everyone with a puncture wound or bite says it’s a white-tail but in New Zealand we have dozens of other spiders that can give us a pretty nasty bite.’ He also said that white-tailed spiders are more likely to be eaten by daddy long legs than the other way around.
The Ministry of Health seems to share Kleinpaste’s opinion. In their Spiders in New Zealand pamphlet, they describe native katipo and redback spiders as potentially harmful. They are quick to assure the public that these spiders are rare and generally non-aggressive unless they feel threatened.
The dominant poison in both the katipo and redback spiders’ venom is a latrotoxin that interferes with the nervous system, prompting large-scale production of the neurotransmitter acetyl choline in the body. This neurotransmitter signals muscles to tighten, causing pain.
Other symptoms of these bites are sweating, shaking and nausea. Anyone bitten by such a spider is advised not to panic but to get urgent medical attention within three hours. Antivenom is available in all NZ hospitals.
White-tailed spiders get only a cursory mention in this pamphlet: ‘White-tailed spider bites are not considered poisonous to humans.’
The Ministry of Health’s website tells a slightly different story: ‘Most white-tailed spider bites are harmless, but just occasionally a severe reaction may result in a deep ulcer or wide area of skin necrosis (where the area of skin and flesh around the wound dies).’
Regardless of the identity of the culprit, there are bugs in New Zealand that can give a nasty bite with the potential to develop flesh-eating bacteria. Keep Linda’s advice in mind and get suspicious bites checked out by a doctor.
Interview with Linda Hauness, 12th April 2012
New Zealand Medical Association article (NZMJ 30 Jan 2004, Vol 117, No 1188) available at http://journal.nzma.org.nz/journal/117-1188/748/
2010 Newspaper article by Andre Hueber, available at http://www.northernadvocate.co.nz/news/reported-rise-in-spider-bites/1014094/
NZ Ministry of Health website and brochure available at http://www.health.govt.nz/yourhealth-topics/bites-and-stings/spider-bites