Few things give people the creepy crawlies like spiders. Their long legs and potential venom are frightful. It’s no wonder that a fear of spiders—and especially spider bites—is one of the most common phobias in Western culture. Yet as scary as spiders may appear, there’s surprisingly little reason to fear them. Most common species simply don’t bite humans. Of those that do, just two types of spiders in the US are of medical concern—widow spiders and recluse spiders—and they live only in certain areas of the country. Here’s what you didn’t know about arachnids…how to protect yourself…and maybe even how to stop being so afraid. 

Relax—most spiders don’t bite. Even experts like myself are rarely bitten. If a spider does bite, it’s because it has been squeezed or laid on and is trying to defend itself. In fact, the jaws of most spiders are so small that their fangs cannot penetrate human skin. Better yet: Unlike mosquitos, spiders don’t carry illnesses such as West Nile or Zika. And unlike mosquitos, they don’t seek out people just to bite them. If you think you were bitten by a spider, you probably were bitten by something else. 

Exception—the notorious black widow does bite. Perhaps no spider inspires more dread than the black widow, with venom powerful enough to be fatal—though it rarely is. The female black widow is the most dangerous to humans in North America. The males are much smaller than the females, and though they possess venom, their fangs are too small to break through human skin. Female black widows’ bodies are about one-half-inch wide and easily recognized by their shiny black bodies and the prominent bright red or orange hourglass shape on their large, round bellies. If you see that and live in an area known for this spider, err on the side of caution and assume that you have just met a black widow. It’s best to kill it to be sure it won’t harm you. The Western black widow is common throughout the western US. The Southern black widow is most common in the southeastern quadrant of the US.

Note: The brown widow also can bite, but its bite is not as devastating, likely because it is smaller and so injects less venom. Brown widows have stripes and mottled coloring that can include tan, dark brown and gray, and an orange hourglass. Brown widow spiders reside in Florida, Texas and Gulf Coast states, along the Atlantic coast up to the Carolinas and in southern California.

If you have been bitten by a black widow, you’ll know it. The venom affects the nerves and muscles. The bite itself may at first be painless or feel like a pinprick and may or may not leave a small red mark or red streak. However, within one to three hours, the victim will develop tremendous pain that can be localized or radiate throughout the torso, along with rigid stomach muscles (which can be misdiagnosed as appendicitis), localized sweating (particularly of the body part that was bitten), fever and an inability to empty the bladder. While reactions can sometimes be more mild (similar to the flu), severe reactions are impossible to ignore and victims should apply cold compresses, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. At the ER, victims may receive antivenom injections and pain relievers. 

Beware the brown recluse. They’re biters, too. Recluse spiders range from tan to dark brown, and many have a distinct violin shape on the back and head. The body is only about half an inch long, but the legs are quite long and spindly. The best way to identify a recluse spider is by the eyes. While most spiders have eight eyes arranged in two rows of four, recluse spiders have six eyes arranged in three pairs. Probably you won’t want to get close enough to count, but even from a slight distance, you may notice that their eyes are in one U-shape row. Brown recluse spiders are mainly restricted to the middle of the US, in southeastern Nebraska, southern Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, southwestern Ohio, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, north Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Missouri and Mississippi. Recluse ­spiders—so named because they prefer to hide—are house spiders. Brown recluse bites typically occur when the spider is hiding in bed linens or rarely used clothing or shoes that someone then puts on.

A recluse bite has only a 10% chance of causing a serious problem. A number of factors determine how dangerous a recluse spider’s bite can be—your immune system, your age (older and younger people have stronger reactions), the age of the spider and how much venom was injected. The initial bite may be painless or feel like a slight pinprick. If you are in the lucky 90%, recluse bites require only RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) but cold compresses are recommended instead of ice. If you are in the unlucky 10%, the reaction can be severe—skin at the site of the bite becomes “dermonecrotic,” causing necrosis (death) of the skin, which looks like a lesion or open sore. The skin at the center of the bite turns from red to dark blue or purple. Usually pain and swelling at the site will increase during the first few hours and flulike symptoms (fever, chills and body aches) can occur. Treatment may include an antivenom injection and skin debridement—the removal of damaged tissue—but only in the extreme cases. Note: More than 40 medical conditions could be misdiagnosed as recluse spider bites, including deadly bacterial infections such as necrotizing fasciitis and the superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). In one study involving 11 university-based medical facilities, 29% of patients who thought they had spider bites actually had MRSA. 

Use Your Spider Sense to Stay Safe

Spiders are more prevalent in your house and yard from April to October. Here’s how to protect yourself outdoors…

Always wear gloves, long sleeves, long pants and closed shoeswhen in places where spiders may reside. 

Hose down outdoor furniture. Look before you sit. 

Stack woodpiles away from your house. Black widows prefer to nest close to the ground in cluttered areas near garages, sheds, rubbish or wood piles where they can find lots of insect prey. 

Keep areas near the foundation of your home, garage and shed free of trash,leaves, heavy ground covers and other clutter.

Store gardening clothes and gloves in garages or sheds in closed bags or bins. Shake well before putting them on.

Protect yourself indoors…

Don’t leave clothes on the floor. Shake them before rewearing them.

Store seasonally used apparel and sports equipment in tightly closed plastic bags or bins.Note: Cedar closets repel insects, but spiders are not insects.

Remove bed skirts, and don’t store items under beds. 

Regularly vacuum or sweep rooms, especially in the corners and around windows. Remove spiders and their webs. If you see what you think is a dangerous spider, kill it. Vacuuming should kill the spider, but immediate disposal of the bag or canister contents will remove all doubt. Spiders that are not dangerous can be left alone if you wish. The average life span is about 18 months, and they do nothing but eat insects and spin webs or actively hunt down prey.