Are Spiders that Dangerous? A Scientific Look at Spider Venom

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Are Spiders that Dangerous? A Scientific Look at Spider Venom

Are Spiders that Dangerous? A Scientific Look at Spider Venom

Spiders have a bad rap in modern media, and statistics estimate that arachnophobia affects 3.5-6.5% of the population. However, arachnophobia is mostly considered to be a cultural rather than a genetic fear, as many cultures in South America even view spiders as a food source rather than something to be afraid of. Some of the most feared spiders include the funnel web, black widow, brown recluse, and the Brazilian wandering spider, all of which have potentially lethal venom. One study in the UK found that while 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men suffer from arachnophobia, out of 118 participants with arachnophobia, only 8 had ever had a traumatic experience. So why this unreasoning fear?

Spiders We Fear

Most common result for 'types of spiders'

Most common result for ‘types of spiders’

A Google search for a ‘brown spider’ reveals not any of over 2,000 varieties of brown spiders, but instead, the brown recluse. And a search for ‘types of spiders’ is most likely to bring up a chart with a list of various venomous spiders rather than the many thousands of harmless ones. Meanwhile stories about Brazilian wandering spiders flood the media, with even spider ‘experts’ often mistaking the harmless American Wandering Spider (Cupiennius) with the Brazilian wandering spider, which is significantly more dangerous. In fact, news stories of this occurrence pop up nearly every month, despite the Brazilian Wandering Spider only making a rare few appearances outside of its native Brazil. Other stories, such as reports of thousands of the notorious brown recluse living in a couple’s home only fuel the fear. And studies show that 62% of people believe that spiders are dangerous to humans, even while sleeping, and more than 70% believe myths such as the idea that tarantula bites can be fatal to someone who is not allergic. However, scientists are beginning to doubt whether or not we should actually be afraid of venomous spiders. Like diseases such as Influenza, which used to be deadly, spider bites are now very treatable with modern medicine.

Why Spiders Aren’t That Scary

I'm scary?

I’m scary?

Until the early 1900s, spiders were a danger and a problem to many people. Living conditions, combined with little to no antivenin availability, meant that people who were bitten by potentially lethal venomous spiders frequently died. Poor plumbing, use of outdoor plumbing, and more cracks and holes in home foundations also meant that these spiders more frequently found their way indoors, where they could be bumped into, disturbed, and provoked into a defensive attack. Because no spider will bite a human for any other reason than defense, this means that in modern times, spider bites are far fewer.

Some spiders like the black widow and funnel web require treatment within 24 hours, or they could be fatal. But there have been no recorded deaths caused by funnel web spiders since 1981, when antivenin was first developed. Widow spiders, including Eastern and Western widows as well as red widows (endemic to Florida) are responsible for a listed 27,000 bites per year, although these results are estimated to be greatly skewed thanks to doctors reporting false widow bites as widows, but no deaths. And the brown recluse is often blamed for any mysterious skin lesion, even though only about 10 percent of brown widow bites result in any necrosis of the flesh at all, and most often, nothing worse than a small scab or sore. In fact, many of the states where brown recluse bite reports are most commonly reported are states where brown widow spiders are rarely found.


Importantly, modern technology has introduced another countermeasure against venomous spiders. Antivenin. This is an antiserum made up of antibodies meant to combat against specific venoms such as those in spiders. Antivenin is made by milking the spider in question for it’s venom. There are a couple of different ways this is achieved, but the most common is to extract the venom from a sleeping spider. The venom is then diluted and injected into an animal, which produces antibodies. The process is extremely common and is the same that is used to treat snake and scorpion bites.

What Happens If A Spider Bites You?

If you are bitten by a spider, try to see what the spider is. If it’s recognizably a venomous spider, consider going to the hospital. If it’s a tarantula, consider staying at home and sleeping it off. In fact, some tarantula bites are no worse than a bee sting. Others might knock you out for a few hours, and others might put you out of action for a week while you experience extreme flu like symptoms. But unless you’re severely allergic and don’t receive treatment, you won’t die. If you start to feel dizzy, recognize a venomous spider, or otherwise feel sick after being bitten, go to the hospital.

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About The Author
Gary Thompson
Gary Thompson graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in Entomology, before going on to pursue a career in research. He currently travels with his wife.

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