Button spider bites
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Latrodectus indistinctus (Black button spider)
is the dangerous species. [image N. Larsen ©]
Latrodectus geometricus (Brown widow,
Geometric button spider) is not regarded as being dangerous. [image
N. Larsen ©]
Neurotoxic envenomation results from bites by button
spiders of the genus Latrodectus
and is known as latrodectism. The species include the four species of black
button spider: Latrodectus cinctus, Latrodectus karooensis, Latrodectus
indistinctus and Latrodectus renivulvatus; and the two brown button
spiders: Latrodectus geometricus (Geometric or Brown button spider) and
Latrodectus rhodesiensis (Zimbabwean or Rhodesian button spider). Most of
the research in South Africa was done using Latrodectus indistinctus
(Western black button spider) and Latrodectus geometricus (Geometric
Bites by Black button spiders are painful and as with
scorpions and snakes, the culprit is usually noticed. They are completely black,
hence the name, lack the orange to red hour glass marking ventrally on the
abdomen – unlike the American Black widow. Juvenile spiders have red stripes,
bands or patterns. Red ventral markings may be visible in juvenile spiders.
Latrodectus indistinctus has red marks dorsally which may be replaced with
white speckles in the sub adult stage. These red markings reduce with each molt
leaving the adult Latrodectus indistinctus totally black.
Hence the species name.
The brown button spiders, Latrodectus geometricus
and Latrodectus rhodesiensis are often mistaken for Black widows as they
have the ventral reddish hour glass but can easily be identified as they have
geometric circular patterns, often red, orange, yellow or white, which radiate
down the sides of the abdomen. Although these spiders are known as “Brown”
button spiders the colouring can range from a cream, dirty light green, olive
green to almost black with brown being the dominant colour. The legs are
noticeably darker at the joints and lighter in colour in the mid sections of the
femur and tibia. All button spiders produce spherical egg cases. Those of the
Black button spiders are smooth; Latrodectus geometricus egg cases are
decorated with tiny spikes while Latrodectus rhodesiensis has a fluffy
egg case about 2.5 times larger; otherwise the two “brown” species are difficult
to separate morphologically.
Neurotoxic venom affects the neuromuscular junctions. The
venom is alkaline (ph 8) and becomes acidic and less toxic at lower
Signs and symptoms
Signs and symptoms involving latrodectism include:
- sharp burning pain at the bite site, or on rare occasions trivial and
- pain spreads to lymph nodes within 5-15 minutes, which become tender and
- initial hyperactivity followed by severe muscle pain and cramps,
especially of large muscle groups, within an hour, resulting in tightness in
the chest. Tremors are present while the weakened leg muscle make it
difficult to walk;
- severe pain in the chest and abdomen;
- excessive salivation and watery eyes;
- facial swelling (oedema), droopy eyelids (ptosis) and a painful grimace;
- anxiety, slight fever, slurred speech, nausea, vomiting and headaches;
- raised or reduced body temperature and a blood pressure (above 140/90mm
Hg) that may rise with an increased pulse rate (tachycardia, above 100 beats
- excessive sweating, resulting in clothing being soaked and a rigid
board-like abdomen is present in latrodectism but absent in Parabuthus
- heart palpitations;
- a rash might develop;
- patient is extremely restless;
- pins and needles (paraethesia) in hands and feet and breathing
difficulties, due to tightness in chest, occasionally reported in children.
It must be noticed that respiratory failure has not been recorded in South
- partial erection (priapism) reported in young males.
It is reported that globally, prior to 1965, that 1-6% of
untreated cases result in death, usually as a result of respiratory failure. In
fact, there have been no deaths from spider bites in South Africa in the last 60
years. Those more severely affected are children (smaller blood volume) and the
elderly who suffer from respiratory or heart problems. Symptoms are less severe
with L. geometricus and L. rhodesiensis, only 25-30% the toxicity of L.
indistinctus. All Latrodectus bites should be and treated and monitored with
equal urgency as necessary according to the signs and symptoms.
When someone is bitten:
- keep the spider, even if it is dead, if possible. An identification of
the spider would be necessary to determine the appropriate treatment, if
- keep the patient or the affected part as motionless as possible.
However, this might not be practical if one is out in the wild. It is then
preferable to get to help as soon as possible even if the patient has to
- eating, drinking and smoking should be avoided;
- loosen tight clothing and remove all jewelry;
- reassure patient;
- call for medical assistance, a cell phone is an indispensable part of an
- keep the patient on his/her back with feet raised above the rest of the
body. Cover with a blanket and keep the head to one side in case of
- apply artificial respiration should breathing stop;
- apply crushed ice to the affected area. The cold helps to retard the
venom action and reduces pain. This must be done within minutes of being
bitten. Do not cool for an extended period and remove periodically for the
feeling to return otherwise tissue damage might result.
What you should NOT do:
- do not use alcoholic drinks as this could mask certain symptoms or
- do not use potassium permanganate on the wound or any traditional
- do not cut the wound;
- do not use a tourniquet as this could aggravate local effects of the
- do not use snakebite or scorpion antivenom on spider bite patients;
- do not waste time with pressure bandaging; and
- do not give electric shocks.
It is unfortunate to see the use of pressure bandaging
advocated as a first aid measure on the web and in books for treatment of snake
bite as it is has shown to be ineffective when used for neurotoxic snake bites
and counter productive and disastrous, restricting the blood flow, when used for
cytotoxic bites (most adders and spitting cobras).
Latrodectus antivenom must be administered in severe
proven or properly diagnosed cases of button spider envenomation. This should be
done by a qualified person who should anticipate anaphylaxis, which is an
allergic life-threatening reaction to antivenom. An intravenous antihistamine
can be administered prior to the antivenom. Anaphylaxis is fortunately rare.
Adrenaline must be administered immediately on presentation of anaphylaxis.
10 ml of antivenom must be administered intravenously diluted in 50 ml saline
and administered over 15 minutes. The patient normally has a dramatic response
to the antivenom showing signs of recovery within 10-30 minutes. If not, a
further 5ml should be given. The patient must be monitored for 24 hours.
The following circumstances could be confused with getting
bitten by a button spider.
Buthid scorpion stings result in immediate intense pain, difficulty in
swallowing (dysphagia), visual disturbance and general sensitivity to touch
to the skin (hyperaesthesia). Profuse sweating and abdominal rigidity is a
feature of button spider envenomation but absent with scorpion envenomation.
- Snake envenomation. The snake is usually seen and the painful
bite is felt. Early signs and symptoms of envenomation by neurotoxic snakes
result in visual disturbance, difficulty in swallowing (dysphagia) and
drooping of the eyelids (ptosis).
- Cytotoxic Spider Envenomation. This can be identified by the
local tissue reaction and development of a necrotic skin lesion.
- Acute Abdominal Pains. Pains resulting from a perforated peptic
ulcer, appendicitis with peritonitis, renal colic and pancreatitis.
- Myocardial Infarction. When diagnosed, cardiac problems that do
not respond to treatment, one should consider Latrodectism.
- Alcohol withdrawal
- Organophosphate poisoning
Publications (by date)
- Dippenaar-Schoeman AS, Newland G. 1980. The Button spiders of South Africa.
Pamphlet No 146, Farming in South Africa. Printed in South Africa by the
Government Printer, distributed by the Director, Division Agricultural
- Martindale CB, Newlands G. 1982. The widow spiders: a complex of
species. South African Journal of Science 78: 78-79.
- Newlands G, Isaacson C, Martindale C. 1982. Loxoscelism in the Transvaal, South
Africa. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 76(5):
- Maretić Z. 1986. Spider venoms and their effect. In: Nentwig, W. (ed.),
Ecophysiology of spiders. Springer, New York, pp. 142-159.
- Newlands G, Atkinson P. 1988. Review of southern African spiders of
medical importance, with notes on signs and symptoms of envenomation. South
African Medical Journal 73: 235-239.
- Newlands G. 1989. Anthropods that sting and bite man – their recognition
and treatment of patients. Journal of Continued Medical Education 17(7):
- Newlands G, Atkinson P. 1990. A key for the clinical diagnosis of
araneism in Africa south of the equator. South African Medical Journal 77:
- Müller GJ, Koch HM, Kriegler AB, van der Walt BJ, van
Jaarsveld PP. 1992. Comparison of the toxicity, neurotransmitter releasing
potency and polypeptide composition of the venoms from Steotoda foravae,
Latrodectus indistinctus and L. geometricus (Araneae: Theridiidae). South
African Journal of Science 88:113-113.
- Müller GJ. 1993. Black and brown widow spider bites in South Africa. A
series of 45 cases. South African Medical Journal 83: 399-405.
- Filmer MR, Newlands G. 1994. Araneism in Africa south of the
equator with key to clinical diagnosis. Diseases of the Skin. 8(2): 4-10.
- Lotz LN. 1994. Revision of the genus Latrodectus (Araneae: Theridiidae) in
Africa. Navorsing van die Nasionale Museum, Bloemfontein 10(1): 1-60.
- Schrire L, Müller, GJ, Pantanowitz L. 1996. The diagnosis and
treatment of envenomation in South Africa. South African Institute for Medical
Research, Johannesburg, pp. 51.
- Müller GJ. 1999. Management of bites and stings: controversial
aspects. Abstract of the 6th African Arachnological Colloquium. African
Arachnological Society Newsletter 12.
- Croucamp W. 2000. Spider bites – diagnosis and management. Journal of
Continued Medical Education. 18(8): 670-678.
- Isbister GK, Gray MR. 2002. A prospective study of 750 spider bites, with
expert spider identification. Queensland Journal of Medicine 95: 726–731.
- Diaz JH. 2004. Global epidemiology, syndromic classification, management
and prevention of spider bites. American Journal of Tropical Medicine and
Hygiene. 71(2): 239–250.
- Müller GJ. 2005. Management of venomous bites and stings: A
mini-review. Unpublished notes.
- Snyman C, Larsen N. 2005. Spider bite and its treatment in southern
Africa. Occupational Health South Africa 11(2): 22-26.