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The Creepy and the Crawly

The brown recluse is also called a violin spider because of the markings on its head.

Rattlesnakes, coral snakes, copperheads, black widows, brown recluse spiders. They're the dreadful creatures that frequent our nightmares or otherwise give us the heebie-jeebies. And rightfully so - their bites can be deadly. But if you heed caution by reducing the risk of luring these venomous critters to your house and yard, have a first-aid kit with the proper materials on hand, and know what to do if you are bitten, chances are you'll never have to worry about serious consequences involving poisonous snakes and spiders. Deadly Snakes Found in the States About 7,000 poisonous snakebites are reported each year in the United States, according to the National Ag Safety Database, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of those bites, about 15 are fatal. There are three common pit viper snakes that inject poison - the rattlesnake, the copperhead and the cottonmouth water moccasin. They're called pit vipers because of the pitlike depressions behind their nostrils that function as heat sensors, making it possible for the snakes to locate warm-blooded prey, even in darkness. The coral snake is the fourth type of poisonous snake found in the United States. When a viper bites, it leaves twin fang marks through the skin. Its venom is stored in glands in the reptile's head. The viper's hollowed, curved fangs fold back into their mouth when they're not in use. Snake venoms are complex mixtures of enzymatic proteins and toxins. Their effects are categorized as hemotoxic (damaging blood vessels and causing hemorrhage) or neurotoxic (paralyzing nerve centers that control respiration and heart action). Some also contain agents that promote or prevent blood clotting. Sometimes a combination of these effects is involved. Every bite is different, even within the same species. Unlike the other types of poisonous snakes, coral snakes have short, fixed fangs in the front of the mouth, and they hang onto and chew their victims. Unlike vipers, coral snakes bite only when they are being handled or are accidentally touched or stepped on. Their venom primarily affects the nervous system. Found in tropical regions of the United States, coral snakes look similar to the harmless king snake - both have red, yellow and black bands along the length of the body. If a red band is between yellow bands, the snake is poisonous. Coral snakes, which measure up to 3 feet long, also sport round pupils and a black nose. The rattlesnake, found throughout the United States and parts of Canada, is responsible for most poisonous snakebites. They are most often recognized by the rattle at the end of their tails, oval pupils and their skinny necks, although young rattlesnakes may not have rattles. They measure up to 8 feet long. The copperhead, found in central and eastern North America, has hourglass-shaped markings on its back and is up to 4 feet long. The cottonmouth - also called the water moccasin - is found in southeastern and south central North America. They have a distinctive white coloring inside their mouths and grow up to 6 feet long. Most snakebites occur between April and October when we tend to be outdoors playing and gardening, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. The CDC says about 85 percent of snakebites occur below the knee. (See the sidebar on page 30 for some poisonous-snakebite symptoms.) But Allison Lee, a Virginia resident, fell into the 15 percent sliver of the pie. She was pulling weeds around the drain spout behind her home back in July, when her left hand grazed something that was moving. "I saw it move, but my brain just didn't register fast enough, and by then it was too late," Lee told the Warrenton, Va., Fauquier Times-Democrat. But what did register quickly was the pain. A 16-inch-long copperhead had bitten her middle finger. "It was like slamming your hand in a car door then setting it on fire with an acetylene torch," she said. "On a scale of one to 10, it was definitely a 10 and a half." Also in July a copperhead struck when a Jefferson, N.J., woman stepped on a pile of leaves while walking her dog. Hiding among the leaves was a feisty copperhead that sunk its two fangs deep into Julie Balz's ankle. "I don't think there's anything (Balz) could have done," Dr. Oliver Hung, an emergency room physician at Morristown Memorial Hospital, told the Daily Record. "If you step on a snake, it's going to bite you." The woman's ankle was reportedly swollen to about 10 inches around, and pain shot up her leg. A serum was administered to counter the venom. Hung said he couldn't recall a fatal snakebite in New Jersey. Meanwhile, University of Maryland Medicine says snakebite victims should get immediate emergency medical treatment. While waiting for an ambulance, bite victims should wash the bite area with soap and water, immobilize the area, keeping it lower than the heart, and cover the area with a cool compress. If it appears that medical attention will take longer than 30 minutes, bite victims should wrap a bandage 2 to 4 inches above the bite, between the bite and the heart, to slow the venom. But it shouldn't be too tight - a finger should still be able to slip underneath it. Also, a suction device - like those found in ordinary snakebite kits - can be placed on the bite to help draw out the venom. Once a snakebite victim reaches a physician, chances are an antivenin - an antidote to snake venom derived from antibodies created in horse blood serum - will be administered. If you see a snake on your property, snake-removal companies and herpetological societies will help you identify the snake, remove it and answer any questions you may have. Eight Creepy Legs While snakes can slither into hiding places around your yard and gardens, there are two types of poisonous spiders in the United States to watch out for - the black widow and the brown recluse. But sometimes people are a bit too cautious - especially when it comes to brown recluse spiders, which can be difficult to identify. Oftentimes when someone thinks they've spotted a brown recluse, it is actually a harmless species. "There's a tremendous amount of misidentification," says Mike Potter, an urban entomologist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. "The most important thing to do is confirm that it is a poisonous spider." The best thing to do is to capture the spider and take it to a local agricultural extension or university office - even a good pest-control company. University of Maryland Medicine says the brown recluse - found in the mid- and deep-south states - can be identified by the violin-shaped mark on its back - in fact it's sometimes called the violin spider. Their favorite hangouts are basements, closets and attics. These guys don't typically attack unless they're provoked, like being trapped or held against the skin. The university says one death - in 2001 - has been reported in the United States. Meanwhile, Potter says brown recluse spiders come out at night and typically hide during the day. "People are sometimes bitten while they are asleep because they roll onto a brown recluse spider while it is hunting in the bed," according to the university's website. "More often the victim is bitten while putting on a shoe or piece of clothing which a spider has selected for its daytime hiding place." Brown recluse spiders have no preference when it comes to living indoors vs. outdoors. Inside, in addition to basements, closets and attics, they'll creep into closets, beds, furniture, packed boxes, above suspended ceilings, behind baseboards, inside ductwork or registers, and even between hanging clothes. "You can have a perfectly pristine house and still have brown recluse spiders," Potter says. Brown recluse spiders' favorite outdoor haunts include barns, utility sheds, wood piles and hiding among lumber, rocks and piles of other debris. When a brown recluse bites, the venom usually triggers local tissue damage. Pain will set in about three to eight hours later; about the same time, the bitten area will likely become red, swollen and tender. "Later the area around the bite site may develop into an ulcerous sore from one-half to 10 inches in diameter," Potter says. "Healing often requires a month or longer, and the victim may be left with a deep scar." The University of Maryland says other symptoms can include a deep-blue or purple area around the bite encircled with white and red rings, resembling a bull's eye; a blackish blister; headaches; body aches; rash; fever; nausea; and vomiting. Potter says prompt medical attention can reduce the symptoms. Meanwhile, black widow spiders are easier to identify - they have a red, hourglass-shaped mark on their otherwise black, shiny body. When these guys attack, they release a toxin that can damage the nervous system. They're found in every state except Alaska. Perhaps nobody knows better than William Deworken, a 68-year-old California man who survived a black widow spider bite after spending two months in a coma, nine months on life support, and grueling weeks and months of physical therapy. It all began in May 2001, when a black widow bit Deworken in the neck inside his Watsonville, Calif., home, according to an August 2003 article in the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian. He didn't feel much pain, so he killed the spider and sat down to watch television. "I remember the TV getting fuzzy, and I thought I was losing the cable connection," he told the newspaper. "Little did I realize that it was me losing consciousness. It really was an accident that anyone found me." Three days later, when he was found, no one could figure out why he was in a deep sleep. That all changed when doctors saw the large abscess on the back of his neck. The poison had entered his spinal cord, and it appeared he would be left paralyzed. A risky surgery was performed in which surgeons cut through Deworken's vertebrae in two places. He awoke from his coma but had to wear a halo brace with pins drilled into his skull following the invasive surgery. He contracted pneumonia while on life support and went through a four-minute period of cardiac arrest. He was told he wouldn't be able to walk again and would need help caring for himself. But his story has a happy ending. He eventually was able to breathe on his own and eat without a feeding machine. After extensive physical therapy, he was able to go home. He now walks, talks and drives. Although Deworken encountered a black widow in his home, Potter, the entomology expert, said black widows aren't as prominent in the house as the brown recluse. "When found in homes, they are usually under appliances or heavy furniture and not out in the open like other cobweb spiders," Potter says. "Black widow spiders are timid, however, and will only bite in response to being injured. People are usually bitten when they reach under furniture or lift objects under which a spider is hiding." Potter says black widow venom is a nerve toxin. When bitten, the victim's abdomen typically becomes painfully stiff and their chest tightens. Blood pressure and body temperature may rise. The victim may sweat, become nauseous or experience swelling. Other symptoms can include restlessness and anxiety, watering of the eyes, headache and weakness. About 5 percent of bite victims experience convulsions in the first 32 hours and die if not given medical treatment. Most black widow venomous bites will respond to calcium gluconate or calcium salts. If you're bitten by a black widow, you should clean the wound and apply ice packs. The University of Maryland says if you're bitten, a physician will likely recommend an antibiotic lotion or cream - this is especially important if a child is bitten. Acetaminophen can be taken for pain. And while Deworken's experience with a black widow spider was horrific, it is not the norm. "Many bites are misdiagnosed," Potter says. "That's why it's important to capture the spider, kill it and have it ID'd. The brown recluse is often misdiagnosed." Potter says the fiddle mark isn't always clear, and the identification is often made by looking at the spider under the microscope, looking for the brown recluse's trademark third pair of eyes. "The vast majority of spiders are harmless," he says. Michele Dawson is a freelance writer based in Elk Grove, Calif.