Recluse spider bite liquefies part of a woman’s ear

Scott Sutherland

Some spiders are renowned for their size or the potency of their venom, but the bite of the notorious recluse spider is particularly nasty, as an unlucky 22-year-old woman from the Netherlands recently found out.

Recluse spiders live in warm climates, and they aren't known for being aggressive, so bites from them are fairly rare. This is a particularly good thing, because of what the recluse venom is capable of doing to the skin, muscle and bone around the bite. When the venom is injected, rather than attacking the nervous system like other poisons do, compounds in the venom immediately start to destroy the tissues they come into contact with, in a process called necrosis. This liquefies the tissues, and can cause large, gruesome patches of blackened skin that need to be cut away in order for the wound to heal. Further danger from the bite is that all the destroyed tissues can easily lead to an infection, and if the poison manages to get into the bloodstream, the necrosis can spread to the blood itself and get transported throughout the body.

In this case, a young woman from the Netherlands was vacationing in Italy when, unbeknownst to her, she was bitten on the ear by a Mediterranean recluse spider. Neither she, nor the local doctors knew what had happened, and she was simply prescribed an antihistamine for the pain and swelling. It wasn't until she returned home, with the wound continuing to get worse, that the doctors there figured out what happened. The complicated nature of the venom means that treating it is very difficult, so in the end, a large chunk of the woman's ear had to be removed, so that only healthy, living tissues were left behind. Fortunately, the doctors were able to reconstruct the ear using cartilage taken from her ribs.

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One of the difficulties in diagnosing recluse spider bites is that they aren't the only thing that can cause necrosis. It can happen if the blood supply is cut off to a part of the body, or from various bacterial infections, and even some insect bites can cause it. This has apparently given the recluse spider a more dangerous reputation than it deserves, since they mostly live rather peacefully around people without anyone getting bitten. It's only when someone accidentally steps on one, or rolls over on one that the spider bites to defend itself.

(Photos courtesy: Marieke van Wijk et al)

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