Redback Spider Bite: My Symptoms and Treatment
It is estimated that over 2,000 people are bitten by redback spiders in Australia every year. About 250 are treated with anti-venom. When I was bitten by a redback spider I was unsure about the best way to respond, so I went to the hospital and spoke with an expert. Since then, I have been very careful to avoid these spiders. Here's the story of my experience, along with tips about how to cope with this type of bite and how to avoid future bites.
Australia's redback spider
What Does a Redback Spider Look Like?
Here's how to spot a female redback spider:
- She generally displays a red, orange or brownish marking on the upper side of her black, rounded abdomen.
- The mark is often a stripe, but may look more like a 'splodge'. On some female redbacks, the marking can be quite low and not instantly obvious.
- There may also be a spot on the underbelly.
- A female redback can sometimes be all black.
- The distinctive shape of the female redback is the most reliable clue.
- She tends to be found in or near a web. Only female redbacks spin webs.
- She may have an egg sac nearby. The egg sac tends to be approximately the same size as the spider herself.
For those who have never seen a redback spider, it is important to remember that the redback is a small spider. It is nowhere near as big and aggressive looking as a funnelweb spider, and it is tiny compared to a massive huntsman spider.
If you are checking your home for redback spiders, you are looking for a spider that is unlikely to be bigger than an adult's thumbnail. The abdomen is bulbous, and the female's body is very black. The marking, generally red but sometimes orange or brown, only covers a small part of the redback's actual body.
Male redback spiders are even smaller than female redbacks and can be light brown with a white marking on the top of its abdomen. Both male and female redback spiders often have a marking shaped like an hourglass on their underside, but don't get bitten looking for it.
Female Redback Spider Bites Are More Dangerous
Compared to female redback spiders, the male is comparatively harmless. A male's fangs are shorter than the fangs of a female redback so they are less likely to penetrate human skin. Males are significantly smaller than the females, and they don't live as long.
Most male redback spiders who manage to mate with a female redback are eaten during the process! After she has mated, the female redback can use and store the sperm for up to two years, producing several egg sacs during that time, each containing 200 to 500 eggs.
The female redback has the most dangerous bite.
What Is a Redback Spider?
The Australian redback spider is a member of the Latrodectus genus which includes
- The black widow spider in North America
- The brown widow spider, also in North America
- The katipo spider in New Zealand, and
- The thirteen-spotted spider in Europe
I was bitten by Australia's redback spider.
Presumably there are some similarities between redback spider bite symptoms, effects and treatment if bitten by any of its relatives, but Australia's redback spider is considered the most dangerous. This article contains details of my own personal experience and viewpoint.
Where Australian Redback Spiders Hide
If you live in or visit Australia, it is important to know where to look for redback spiders. Because they are so small, if you don't make a deliberate effort to look for a redback, you probably won't see it until you are looking to see what caused you unexpected pain.
Statistics show that approximately 2,500 people in Australia are bitten by redback spiders every year.
Here are some of the key places to look for redback spiders:
- Under your bicycle seat, and in the hollow handle bars
- Inside your bike helmet
- Beneath the surface that forms a lip over your in-ground swimming pool.
And in the filter box!
- Along the edges where your floor meets your wall, particularly near doors that lead outside
- Under the lip of plant pots - both indoors and outdoors
- Under outdoor furniture and seating
- In any grooves beneath the swing on your child's swing set
- Around the edge of a child's sandpit
- In your wood heap
- Beneath any large item of furniture, so check before lifting wardrobes or bookcases
- In your shoes!!
- It is a good idea to wear gloves when gardening or collecting firewood
Redback spiders choose locations that are protected from the rain and direct sunlight. Any sheltered little nook or cranny is a perfect home for redbacks.
The web may be large and three-dimensional, sometimes extending from garden furniture or even the top of a fence to the ground, or it may be a small and tight web in a small and restricted area.
Be particularly vigilant if you have young children. Turn over the seat of a swing and check for spider webs on all outdoor toys including tricycles. A redback spider can generally be dislodged from its home with a stick, and squashed with your shoe.
Shake items like bike helmets, shoes and boots before you use them. Don't just give a feeble shake, smack bike helmets against your fist and whack the heels of your boots and shoes on the ground to dislodge any spider hiding within, then shake them upside down and watch to see if any spiders fall out.
Juvenile spiders start life very small, can be more variably coloured and may not have any distinguishing spots or stripes.
If you are thinking this all sounds a little melodramatic and you can't be bothered checking for redback spiders as part of daily life, remember that redback spiders get the chance to bite about 2,500 people in Australia every year.
Visit any Australian farm and you'll notice that we all smack our boots on the ground and shake them out before sliding our feet in them. When you leave your muddy boots outside the back door, the last thing you want is an unexpected invasion by a redback spider.
Given that about seven people experience the pain and inconvenience of a redback spider bite every day, it is easy to see why most Australians get used to automatically checking for redback spiders to avoid being bitten.
Redbacks can live in very small places
How I Was Bitten Three Times By a Redback Spider!
It was summer and the grass was dry. Instead of mowing, I had a lovely goat who would happily munch the grass while tethered to posts strategically placed around my yard.
As the day heated up, I decided to move the goat from her current position at the front of my home and set her free to wander beneath the trees in her paddock or rest in her shed at the back of the property. To take her home I simply had to lead her through the orchard.
Instead of grabbing my big boots as I would have done had I intended to enter her paddock, I reached for a pair of shoes on the shoe rack inside the back door, smacked them on the ground and shook them to release any spiders that may have taken refuge from the heat.
We were halfway across the orchard when I felt a sharp pain in one of my middle toes. It surprised me that a prickle had managed to get wedged in the upper leather of my shoe. I rolled my toes up to avoid touching it again.
When I felt the same pain in a different toe, I knew I was in trouble.
The goat and I had passed the plums, but she was insisting that we detour via the apricots and I was determined we should complete a direct path to the paddock gate. If I released just one of my hands from her chain, she would have been impossible to restrain. We were only about ten paces to her gate, not far at all.
By the time I managed to safely contain the goat in her yard and remove my shoe, I had been speared for a third time. As I tilted my shoe, a big fat redback spider with bright red marking rolled like a marble into the heel.
It was only then that I noticed the leather upper of my shoe was folded under and stitched, leaving a little shelf of sorts for the spider to remain firmly wedged between the two layers of leather when I had smacked and shaken the shoe. It had taken a while for the spider to climb out and begin biting my toes.
At the Hospital
I took the redback spider with me to the hospital in a jar. By the time I arrived there my toes felt like they were on fire and the pain was intense. It radiated up my foot.
My redback spider bites occurred in about 1991, before Google and other search engines offered answers to every question, so I was relying on the hospital staff to provide the advice I needed.
I worked in a city but my home was in a rural area where I could enjoy my lifelong passion for growing fresh fruit and vegetables so my nearest hospital was a small country hospital where there's rarely a crowd in the waiting room. How reassuring to receive immediate attention.
But when the nurse told me to sit down on a chair and raise my leg up and rest it on the bed while she called a doctor, I challenged her. It seemed more likely that the appropriate response in the short term was to keep my foot low and discourage the venom from making its way to my heart. After she spoke with the doctor, she agreed with me.
She brought me an ice pack and told me the doctor would be arriving soon to inject me with antivenom.
The pain ramped up in increments (as did my increasing impatience.) The greatest frustration for me was not knowing what to expect. The nurse knew nothing and the doctor had still not arrived more than an hour after I had been told to expect him.
As the pain kept progressing from can't-possibly-get-worse to just-did!, I was seriously considering getting someone to drive me to a city hospital.
Redback Spider Bite Symptoms
About twelve months earlier I had interviewed one of Australia's leading redback spider experts about one of his other specialties.
When I managed to fight through the pain-induced fuzz in my brain and remember his name, I hobbled back out to the hospital waiting room to use the public telephone and I called the redback spider expert's office to tell him my symptoms and ask for advice. (I was bitten in the days before mobile telephones.)
Here's what I learned from the voice of authority:
- Redback spider venom travels very slowly through your body so, for most people, there's not the same urgency that you'd have with a venomous snake bite or bite from a funnel web spider. (That was nice to know. Phew!)
- More people have severe reactions to the redback spider antivenom than the redback spider bite itself. (I was pleased to learn that before the doctor arrived, although it wasn't very encouraging!)
- At any time during the next seven days the redback spider venom would pass through my heart. (Oh?)
- He strongly recommended that I not exert myself or put any additional strain on my body - particularly my heart - for at least seven days. In an ideal world, he suggested, I should stay in bed for a week.
- He ran through a list of symptoms including the excruciating pain (which I had), sweating at the site of the bite (which I also had), nausea (which I suspected might have been the result of worrying about being bitten rather than the bite itself), plus some I didn't have.
It had been, I think, about four hours since my toes had been attacked when I hung up the phone. The doctor was waiting for me as I hobbled back into the ER.
The doctor was intending to inject me with antivenom, but I insisted he check my vitals and explain to me what my current condition was in his professional opinion, and tell me which of the typical symptoms I did and did not display.
He had to wander off to find reference material to check against. When I declined his offer of an injection, he was eager to admit me to hospital for observation. My family at that time included a new and unfamiliar babysitter, plus a newly fostered child who was unlikely to respond well to my sudden disappearance. So I declined that offer as well, and reached home before my children returned from school.
What People Don't Tell You About Redback Spider Bites
Anyone who has been bitten by a redback spider will tell you about the pain. That's the first thing that springs to mind. The bite hurts.
In my case, each bite hurt. A lot! The extreme pain lasted for days. I was careful not to get excited or lift anything heavy or even move the goat from her yard for a week and a day.
I am sure that a lot of other people would have exerted themselves within a week of their bite and survived the exertion, but the authority on redbacks had told me that whether or not someone is potentially straining their heart at the precise moment the venom passes has a lot to do with luck. I wasn't prepared to trust my survival to luck, so I took appropriate precautions.
What he didn't tell me, and I rarely hear anyone mention it until I raise the subject first, is that the extreme pain is replaced in time by a similar level of itchiness. There came a time when my toes stopped hurting and started to feel itchy. I rubbed them with relief.
But as the itchy feeling escalated, the way the pain had at the time of the bite, it almost drove me mad. There were moments when I considered chopping my toes off or placing a hot iron over them to give me respite from the annoying itch.
I don't know what difference it made that I was bitten three times, had beads of sweat and a little redness on each of my three toes. Would it have been more tolerable had I only been bitten once? I don't know. To hear others complain about the pain (and the itch when I ask) suggests that a single redback spider bite also seems intolerable to most victims.
Redback spider webs
Treatment for a Redback Spider Bite
Hopefully you'll never be bitten by a redback spider, but if you are living in or visiting Australia you need to be vigilant.
If you feel a sharp, unexpected pain anywhere on your body - even inside your clothing - check for a spider. If it fits the description of a redback, here's what to do.
- Catch and seal the spider in a container like a jar or a sealable plastic bag. Don't get bitten again while catching it.
- If you can't catch it, take a decent photo on your digital camera, ipod or phone. You are best advised to have some kind of evidence for identification of the type of spider.
- Get someone to take you (and the spider or photo) to a doctor or hospital.
- Avoid unnecessary movement. This is not the time to walk to the hospital. Call an ambulance on 000 if necessary.
- Put a pack of frozen peas or a soft ice pack over the bite as soon as possible to reduce swelling.
- DO NOT BANDAGE a redback spider bite. A bandage won't help, and it will simply increase the pain.
- Why go to the doctor or hospital? Because you want to be near medical assistance and antivenom treatment if you have an extreme reaction to the bite. Go there, tell them you've been bitten by a redback spider, produce your evidence and sit in the waiting room and wait.
If you have a severe reaction while waiting, at least help will be near.
- Follow this link to the South Australian Government's helpful page showing symptom lists and recommended treatment. Red Back Spiderbite Management Flow Chart. Read it so you know what to expect.
- Ask the doctor to explain to you why they believe you require anti-venom if they recommend it, and why not if they don't. Get involved in the decision making process, but don't automatically assume that you know better than the doctor. Every case will be different. Try to understand the specifics of your reaction and circumstances.
- Avoid physical exertion for at least a week, and avoid unnecessary emotional or psychological stress.
- Once the pain starts to reduce, prepare for the itch. In my experience, calamine lotion and other general remedies offered no real relief. In the years since my redback spider bite I have relied more on a variety of herbal and natural remedies that have been very effective. If I'm ever bitten by a redback spider again, I'll apply Mobicosa gel. The gel provides relief from itchy mosquito bites and painful green ant bites. It is a natural anti-inflammatory (to address swelling) and pain-reliever.
Above all, don't panic! Australia has an anti-venom treatment for redback spider bites. However, if you take care, hopefully you'll never need it.
Good pic in this video. (But ignore everything she says!)
Comments About This Redback Spider Video
I don't know what this lady has been teaching her environmental science students for the past 20 years, but I hope her research was more thorough than her attempt at explaining redback spiders.
Firstly, no Australian calls a redback a 'toilet spider'. Yes, it is the spider that featured in a song that goes, 'There was a redback on the toilet seat, when I was there last night ...'. It is an old-time Aussie country song and most Australians are familiar with it, but your chances of finding a redback on a toilet seat since toilets moved indoors are next to none. In the days when homes had outdoor toilets in a little shed a walk from the house, sure. Not any more.
Secondly, she speaks as though the redback spider pictured on her screen shows the standard, run of the mill, factory produced markings of a redback. Wrong! I have seen at least 100 redbacks in my lifetime and the marks vary enormously. Some have an hourglass mark on the top and underneath, although the mark beneath may not be red. Others have a literal stripe, some have a splodge, and some don't show red at all.
As I mentioned earlier, the mark may even be orange or brownish, so forget what this lady says. Just take note of its shape.
Her advice about what to do if you are in Australia and see a redback is about as useless as the rest of her presentation. There's no need to back away and try to stay as far away from it as you can, because I've never heard of a redback spider chasing anyone across the room.
A redback spider is tiny. You can knock it to the ground with a stick if it is not already on the ground, and step on it. Just make sure you're wearing closed in shoes when you step on it, and don't mess around inviting it to bite you. If you see an egg sack close to her, I suggest you squash that as well.
The presenter in this video is right about seeking medical attention if you are bitten by a redback spider, but her fatality warning is a bit of a stretch.
Redback Spider Bite Prognosis
Fifty years ago you may well have died from a redback spider bite, but not these days. We've had effective anti-venom for redback spider bites for a long time now. Only about one tenth of the people who are bitten by this spider require the anti-venom, and you have plenty of time to get to a doctor.
Questions & Answers
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