What Is A White Tail Spider?

White-tail spider bite

Although a white-tail spider bite can be painful and cause temporary skin irritation and inflammation, experts now say it’s very unlikely that the white-tail spider is responsible for the hard-to-treat skin ulcers and slow-healing wounds attributed to the spider over the past 30 years. It appears this particular spider’s reputation is undeserved and greatly overestimated.

Symptoms of a white-tail spider bite

A bite from a white-tail spider usually results in temporary symptoms at the site of the bite. This can include:

  • Irritation or a red mark on the skin (including visible puncture marks);
  • Pain or discomfort that is generally mild-to-moderate in severity;
  • Swelling; and
  • Itchiness (either immediately or several days later).

The average duration of symptoms tends to be around 24 hours, but the time taken for symptoms to disappear can vary. Some people only experience symptoms for an hour or two, whereas others may have symptoms (such as a painful red mark on the skin) that last for up to a week.

More rarely, white-tail spider bites may cause:

  • Severe pain (in just over one-quarter of cases);
  • Nausea, vomiting, headache or feeling unwell (in around 10% of cases).

There are thought to be more than 10,000 different species of spiders in Australia. But with the exception of several highly venomous ones – like the redback spider and funnel-web spider that can cause serious illness and possibly death – most spider bites in Australia generally cause relatively minor symptoms.

Do white-tail spider bites really cause a ‘flesh-eating’ wound?

The white-tail spider has often been blamed in media reports and on social media for the development of nasty ‘flesh-eating’ skin wounds that take a long time to heal, or sometimes never completely heal. Some reports even suggest that being bitten by the white-tail spider results in wounds so severe that amputation of an affected body part is necessary. This phenomenon goes by the complicated name of ‘necrotic arachnidism’, which is another way of saying that a patch of skin dies (a process known as necrosis), possibly due to a bite from a spider (which is an arachnid).

However, spider experts now strongly question whether the white-tail spider is the guilty party in these cases of severe skin ulcers. The initial theory several decades ago was that the venom of the white-tail spider resulted in the death of skin tissues. However, later experiments have confirmed that white-tail spider venom is quite weak and does not result in the death of skin cells in laboratory tests.

Support for the innocence of white-tail spiders also comes from the largest study of its kind looking at 130 Australian cases confirmed to be caused by white-tail spiders (proven by capturing the offending spider and having it identified by a spider expert). Although all victims experienced pain and discomfort following the bite, there were no cases of skin ulcers or persistent skin wounds in any of the 130 cases.

So the good news is that – on the basis of the currently available evidence – spider bites of any kind in Australia are very unlikely to cause skin ulcers or slow-healing wounds.

What else can cause slow-healing skin wounds?

Anyone with skin wounds that don’t heal should seek medical attention and be investigated for other causes of skin ulcers and wounds. This can include problems with blood circulation, skin ulcers due to diabetes, secondary infections with bacteria, fungi or viruses, drug reactions, burns (especially chemical burns), physical injury to the skin, some inflammatory skin diseases, and some types of cancer.

See also:  What Does It Mean If You See A Spider?

How common is a bite from a white-tail spider?

Although the available evidence appears to clear white-tail spiders as the culprit when it comes to skin wounds, it seems that the general public has an unnecessarily high level of anxiety about this particular spider. In a survey of 663 calls made to the Victorian Poisons Information Centre for suspected spider bites, calls about white-tail spiders accounted for more than a quarter of all calls over the course of the year. This is unusual considering that white-tail spider bites generally cause only minor effects. Phone calls about the more dangerous redback spider accounted for almost 70% of calls.

Where do white-tail spiders live?

White-tail spiders live throughout Australia and are often found indoors, so the majority of white-tail spider bites occur indoors, particularly during warmer months (September to April). The spider is most active at night, and in the Australian study of 130 confirmed white-tail spider bites, 75% of bites occurred between 4 PM and 8 AM, primarily from spiders that were in caught up in bedding or on towels and clothing. Around a quarter of white-tail spider bites occurred on the lower arms and hands or lower legs and feet.

What should I do if I think I’ve been bitten by a white-tail spider?

It can be difficult to tell what type of spider has bitten you unless the spider has been seen at the time the bite occurs. If the spider can be safely captured in an escape-proof container, this may help later identification by an expert.

Unlike many types of spiders that look similar to each other, white-tail spiders are easier to identify because of a distinctive white spot on top of the end of their abdomen. The abdomen is also longer (almost cigar-shaped) compared to some other spiders, such as the redback spider, that have a round abdomen.

If there is a possibility that a spider bite is due to a redback spider or a funnel-web spider, you should seek immediate medical attention. Bites from these spiders can be serious and potentially deadly. You may require treatment with anti-venom (particularly for bites from a funnel-web spider).

In contrast, the venom of white-tail spiders is weak, so for bites from this and many other species of spider, temporary treatment of the symptoms may be all that is required. This can include simple remedies such as:

  • Cleaning the affected area with a disinfectant or antiseptic;
  • Applying a cold pack or ice wrapped in a towel to the bitten area;
  • Taking a pain reliever to reduce pain, inflammation and swelling – such as paracetamol (Panadol) or ibuprofen (Nurofen); or
  • Taking an antihistamine to relieve itchiness.

In the Australian study of confirmed white-tail spider bites, only 21 of the 130 patients visited an emergency department or a local doctor, and none required admission to hospital.

In the very unlikely event of skin wounds that are slow to heal after a suspected white-tail spider bite, a doctor may take a sample of tissue from the wound and conduct a full health check to look for other possible causes. Antibiotics may be necessary if the skin becomes infected with bacteria. Very occasionally, skin grafts may be used to help heal chronic skin ulcers.

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Last Reviewed: 15/07/2016

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References

1. Isbister GK, Gray MR. White-tail spider bite: a prospective study of 130 definite bites by Lampona species. Med J Aust 2003; 179 (4): 199-202.
2. White-tail spider bites – An overview of best practice. Accident Compensation Corporation Review 42 (April 2009). Available at: http://www.acc.co.nz/PRD_EXT_CSMP/groups/external_providers/documents/guide/prd_ctrb109760.pdf (accessed 11 July 2016).
3. Sutherland SK. Australian spider and insect bites (updated 23 April 2016). Available at: http://www.acc.co.nz/PRD_EXT_CSMP/groups/external_providers/documents/guide/prd_ctrb109760.pdf (accessed 11 July 2016).
4. Women’s and Children’s Hospital Adelaide. Clinical Toxinology Resource. Australian white tailed spiders. Available at: http://www.toxinology.com/about/white_tailed_spider_bites.html (accessed 11 July 2016).
5. Australian Museum. Spider facts (updated 30 October 2015). Available at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/spider-facts (accessed 11 July 2016).
6. Australian Museum. White-tailed spider (updated 30 October 2015). Available at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/white-tailed-spider (accessed 12 July 2016).
7. Braitberg G & Segal L. Spider bites – Assessment and management. Australian Family Physician 2009; 38: 862-867.
8. Tibballs J. Spider bites – An update on management. Medicine Today 2004; 5: 27-32.

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White-tailed Spider

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Introduction

White-tailed Spider bites have been controversially implicated in causing severe skin ulceration in humans.

Identification

White-tailed Spiders have a dark reddish to grey, cigar-shaped body and dark orange-brown banded legs. The grey dorsal abdomen bears two pairs of faint white spots (less distinct in adults) with a white spot at the tip; the male has a hard, narrow plate or scute on the front of the abdomen. The two common species in southern Australia, Lampona cylindrata and L. murina, are similar in appearance and have overlapping distributions in the south-east. Their bites have been controversially implicated in causing severe skin ulceration in humans.

Habitat

White-tailed Spiders are vagrant hunters that live beneath bark and rocks, in leaf litter, logs and detritus in bush, gardens and houses.

Distribution

Lampona cylindrata is found across southern Australia (south east Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia). Lampona murinais present in eastern Australia from north-east Queensland to Victoria (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria,).

Feeding and diet

They are most active at night when they wander about hunting for other spiders, their preferred food. They have been recorded eating curtain-web spiders (Dipluridae), daddy-long-legs spiders (Pholcidae), Redback Spiders (Theridiidae) and black house spiders (Desidae) During summer and autumn White-tailed Spiders are often seen in and around houses where they find both sheltered nooks and crannies and plenty of their favoured black house spider prey.

Life history cycle

Tufts of specialised scopulate hairs on the ends of their legs allow them to walk easily on smooth or sloping surfaces. They make temporary silk retreats and spin disc-shaped egg sacs, each containing up to 90 eggs.

See also:  What Are The Symptoms Of A Poisonous Spider Bite?

Management

White-tailed Spiders around your house can be controlled by catching and removing any that you see and by clearing away the webs of the house spiders upon which they feed.

Danger to humans

White-tailed Spider bites can cause initial burning pain followed by swelling and itchiness at the bitten area. Occasionally, there are unconfirmed reports of weals, blistering or local ulceration — conditions known medically as necrotising arachnidism.

A debate continues about the involvement of White-tailed Spider bite in cases of severe ulcerative skin lesions seen in patients diagnosed as probable spider bite victims. Typically, in such cases no direct evidence of spider bite is available. Sensational media reporting of supposed cases of severe «necrotising arachnidism» has given the White-tailed Spider a bad reputation. However, a recent study has monitored the medical outcomes of over 100 verified White-tailed Spider bites and found not a single case of ulceration (confirming the results of an earlier study). The available evidence suggests that skin ulceration is not a common outcome of White-tailed Spider bite.

References

  • Isbister, G.K. & Gray, M.R. 2003. White-tail Spider bite: a prospective study of 130 definite bites by Lampona species. Medical Journal of Australia 179: 199-202.
  • Isbister, G. & Gray, M. 2000. Acute and recurrent skin ulceration after spider bite Medical Journal of Australia 172: 303-304
  • Platnick, N.I. (2000). A relimitation and revision of the Australasian ground spider family Lamponidae (Araneae: Gnaphosoidea). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 245: 330 pp.
  • Sutherland, S. & Sutherland, J. 1999. Venomous Creatures of Australia. Oxford University Press, South Melbourne Vic.
  • White, J. 1998. Response to Chan, S.W. 1998. Recurrent necrotising arachnidism. Medical Journal of Australia 169: 642-643

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