Australia is home to many of the world’s most venomous spiders. But before that gets your heart racing, of our roughly 2,000 species, the majority are relatively harmless to humans. The big question is: do you think you can tell the difference? And would you know how to treat a venomous bite?
“There are around 1,300 presentations to emergency departments Australia wide each year for spider bites,” says Bill Nimorakiotakis, Deputy Director of Emergency Medicine at Epworth Richmond. “Double the number of presentations for snake bite.”
“Summer, when spiders and humans are both more active, is the peak time for spider bites, so the presentation are pretty steady over this time.”
Here in Victoria encountering a Funnel Web Spider is thankfully pretty unlikely. Funnel Webs, known for their size and distinctive web structure, are found in coastal and eastern Australia, but the most venomous of the species, the Sydney Funnel Web Spider, is not found this far south.
The spiders that generally cause the most concern are Redback Spiders and White Tailed Spiders. A bite from either can cause a serious and painful reaction, however it’s not life threatening.
A bite from a Redback Spider, with its characteristic red stripe, causes immediate, severe and persistent local pain. Adults generally present with different symptoms to children. These may include sweating to the part the body that’s been bitten, piloerection (where the hairs stand on end), nausea, vomiting, abdominal or chest pain, fever and palpitations. Patients may also experience feelings of anxiety. Children are more likely to present with fairly non-specific pain symptoms including rashes and irritability.
A bite from a White Tailed Spider, easily recognised by the distinctive white tip on its abdomen, causes only mild reactions such as local pain, redness and swelling. Bites from this spider have been linked to a condition known as necrotising arachnidism, blistering and ulceration or destruction (necrosis) of the skin, however no evidence exists to support this.
Basic first aid
A bite of any kind will cause a reaction, whether it’s a spider, bee, mosquito, ant, tick or something else entirely, and you’ll see a little lump. Not everything that itches or causes pain is a spider bite and unless you see what’s bitten you it can be difficult to identify the culprit.
If you suspect that you or someone close to you has been bitten by a spider (other than a Funnel Web Spider):
- Administer Pannadol or Nurofen
- Apply ice or a cold compress
- Ensure tetanus immunisation is up to date
- If pain continues for more than an hour or two, if it’s getting progressively worse or if you suspect it’s a Redback Spider bite visit the emergency department.
“An emergency department may not be able to conclusively identify whether your reaction is the result of a spider bite but we will be able to manage your symptoms and if we suspect a Redback Spider bite, administer anti-venom,” says Bill.
Babies, young children, the elderly and people with an existing heart condition may be at greater risk of severe reactions to spider bites. Some people may have a severe allergic reaction to being bitten. If a severe reaction occurs, regardless of the spider, call triple zero (000) immediately.