Bites, Stings And Harmful Plants

  • Venomous Snake Bites
  • Venomous Spider Bites
  • Other Bites
  • Stings
  • Poison Ivy, Oak, Sumac and Stinging Nettle
  • Other Poisonous Plants
  • Venomous Snake Bites

    Restricting the spread of venom throughout the victim's body is the primary concern immediately after a snakebite. Make a visual check of the victim to locate the bite area and further inspect the bite area for puncture wounds, bruising, and swelling. Have the victim lay or sit down; either is okay, as long as the person is relaxed. Being relaxed and having the bite area lower than the heart will slow down the spread of the venom.

    Loosely tying a rope or rag around the area will also help to limit the spread of the venom, as will tying a strip on either side of the wound, both two inches away. Don't over tighten, as this is not a tourniquet; allow enough room to slip two fingers between the strips and the skin. Evacuate the victim for emergency medical attention immediately.

    Once the victim is stabilized, a reasonably safe effort should be made to capture, or at least identify, the snake. Most snakebite victims in the United States are successfully treated with the appropriate antivenins and recover.

    Venomous Spider Bites

    There are four types of spiders in the United States considered significantly venomous: widow spiders, genus Latrodectus; recluse spiders (sometimes called brown spiders), genus Loxosceles; the hobo spider, Tegenaria agrestis, and yellow sac spiders, genus Cheiracanthium.

    There are a number of species of widow spiders throughout the United States, including at least three species of the infamous black widow. Black widows are the most dangerous of the widow spiders, though all are venomous. They are characterized by shiny, bulbous black bodies and red abdominal markings often in the shape of an hourglass. Indoors, they are normally found in closets, drawers and other dark areas; outdoors they prefer outhouses, window wells, undisturbed wooded areas, stumps, and abandoned rodent holes. They are known to bite only when their web is disturbed or they are cornered or threatened.

    Visual indication of a black widow bite is minimal except for redness around the bite, which disappears in a few hours. However, within a few hours, the victim experiences severe pain, muscle cramps and spasms. Symptoms may also include anxiety, profuse sweating, nausea, and labored breathing and speech. In severe cases, the victim may experience convulsions, stupor or even paralysis. Death is rare, but more likely to occur in children, the elderly or those already in poor physical condition.

    First aid in the field should begin with keeping the victim calm. Apply antiseptic to the bite, then apply ice, if available. A pain reliever like ibuprofen may be used. The bite should be kept at or below heart level, and bands should be tied on either side of the wound, but not too tight. Avoid excess movement. If possible, capture the spider for identification. Take the victim to a hospital or poison control center, which will administer a muscle relaxant and possibly antivenin if the reaction is severe.

    Slightly less notorious than the black widow but responsible for more bites, the brown recluse is one of many venomous species in the recluse genus. The recluse spiders look similar—they are about a half-inch wide and light brown – and are found in the Southern and Midwestern states. The brown recluse has a fiddle-shaped mark on its upper back. True to its name, the recluse spider can be found most often in areas of little activity. In the wild they reside under rocks and other debris; indoors, they frequent attics and cellars, with most bites occurring while reaching behind a couch to clean or while putting on shoes or clothing that has not recently been worn.

    Unlike the venom of the black widow, which acts on the nervous system, the venom of the brown recluse acts on tissue cells. The bite begins with an area of redness, which becomes a painful red blister in a few hours. A bluish circle will appear around the blister, followed by a red circle, forming the classic “bull’s-eye” pattern of recluse bites. The victim may experience chills, fever, weakness, nausea, and other flu-like symptoms. Over the next several weeks the lesion normally spreads and scabs over, finally subsiding and leaving a scar. In a few severe cases, the victim may experience convulsions, irregular blood clotting, or kidney failure leading to death.

    First aid in the field for brown recluse bites is the same as for black widow bites, except that oral antihistamines can be taken to reduce the burning, itching and swelling. The victim should be transported to a hospital, where antibiotics and cortisone-like hormones may be administered. If possible, the spider should be captured for identification.

    In the Northwest, there have been a growing number of reported spider bites by the hobo spider, sometimes called the aggressive house spider or northwestern brown spider. Previously, many of the hobo spiders' bites had been erroneously attributed to the brown recluse. The hobo spider was introduced to the U.S. from Western Europe sometime before the 1930s, but only recently has been recognized as the leading cause of serious envenomation in the northwestern United States. In 1996, the hobo became the third spider to be placed on the venomous spider list of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    These brown and gray spiders build funnel-style webs in dark, damp areas and are known to bite only when provoked or threatened. They are also commonly encountered in mid-summer away from the web, such as when the males are in search of mates.

    The hobo spider's bite appears much the same as the recluse, but develops a more crater-like sore. Initially, a bite from a hobo spider produces a small white blister surrounded by a swollen, reddened area. Other symptoms are different from those caused by a recluse bite, and may include severe headache, nausea, dry mouth, joint pain, weakness, lethargy, dizziness, visual disturbances and hallucinations. The sore commonly takes two months to heal, though full recovery of the underlying muscles might take several months. Scarring usually occurs. Sores have been known to take three years to heal when the bites have occurred in highly fatty tissue. In escalated cases, the bite can lead to muscle deterioration, large cratered scarring and, most deadly, bone marrow destruction.

    First aid in the field for hobo spider bites is the same as for brown recluse bites. If symptoms continue for more than a day without improvement and a bite from one of these spiders is suspected, seek medical attention immediately. If possible, attempt to capture the spider to aid the doctor in identification so it is not mistaken for a brown recluse bite.

    Yellow sac spiders produce symptoms similar to the brown recluse and hobo spider, though usually less severe. They are small and yellowish in color, and widely distributed throughout the United States. They are very prone to bite defensively, and it is thought they are responsible for many “brown recluse” bites outside that spider’s home range. Their bite usually produces instant, stinging pain followed by redness, swelling and itching, and sometimes a lesion. First aid is the same as for the brown recluse and hobo spiders.

    The risk of spider bites can be reduced with a little prevention. Don’t reach into any dark or hidden spaces, and don’t disturb a venomous spider’s web.

    Other Bites

    Dogs, cats, raccoons, skunks, bats or foxes all sometimes bite people. The main dangers from a bite are infection and rabies.

    If bitten, wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water to remove any saliva or dirt. If the bite is deep, flush it for ten minutes to protect against infection. If the wound is swollen, apply ice. Take an oral analgesic to relieve any pain. If the wound becomes infected over the next few days, see a doctor. If you are bitten by a pet and know the owner, find out when the animal was immunized for rabies. If the immunizations are not current, contact animal control to have the animal observed over the next ten days to make sure rabies does not develop.

    Ticks are parasitic arachnids that burrow their heads into the victim’s skin to feed on blood. They can pass on diseases, most commonly Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

    If a tick is found, grasp the tick with tweezers as close to the skin as possible and slowly pull without jerking or twisting. Special tweezers made for tick extraction are ideal, but regular tweezers work also. If the tick won’t come out, apply permethrin (an insect repellant and pesticide) to the back and underside of the tick. Wait 15 minutes, then attempt to extract the tick again, as the permethrin will relax the tick. Once the tick is extracted, wash the area with soap and water and apply and antiseptic. Save the tick in case any symptoms of infection arise.

    Chiggers and mosquitoes are common foes to most people. The itchy welts disappear within days for mosquitoes and a week for chiggers. To relieve itching, apply a calamine or cortisone lotion.

    There are many other insects and arachnids that bite, with varying levels of venom, including certain ants, centipedes, tarantulas and caterpillars. Usually the venom is not significant, but in some cases may cause an allergic reaction. In the event of a bite, first aid is similar to that for a bee sting: first wash the area, then apply an ice pack to reduce swelling. Use a calamine lotion to reduce pain. An antihistamine will provide additional relief.


    Stings frequently occur from wasps, hornets and bees. Reactions to insect stings range from mild to severe and vary from person to person. Usually such stings are of little concern. Mild reactions may include the sting site itching, swelling, some redness and a warming sensation. Sometimes, though, a sting can result in a serious allergic reaction. This may include increased pulse rate, breathing difficulties or difficulty swallowing because of swelling in the throat and face area. A severe reaction can also lead to shock.

    Hornets and wasps can sting multiple times, but bees usually cannot. After stinging, a bee will leave its stinger imbedded in the skin with a venom pack attached (the bee goes off and dies). Conventional wisdom has held that the stinger should be scraped off with a fingernail or credit card to avoid pinching the stinger and squeezing more venom into the skin. However, a 1996 study concluded that pulling out a stinger with finger and thumb resulted in no larger welts than scraping it out. What did matter was the amount of time a stinger was imbedded in the skin, as each passing second produced a larger welt. Accordingly, it is recommended that a stinger be removed as quickly as possible using any method.

    Once removed, wash the area with an antiseptic soap and rinse with cool water. Apply a solution of one part meat tenderizer to 4 parts water – this will ease the pain and itching. Apply ice to dull the allergic response. An oral antihistamine will provide further relief and reduce the spread of the venom. A cooling cream like calamine or hydrocortisone will help relieve the itch and reduce the heat, and an oral analgesic like ibuprofen will relieve general pain. Cover the sting with a bandage and, if an allergic reaction is expected, seek medical attention.

    Another stinging creature to watch out for is the scorpion. Stinging scorpions all have venom, but the venom generally poses no threat to humans. An exception in North America is the bark scorpion, Centruroides exilicauda. This species is found in Arizona and along the extreme southern border. The bark scorpion is yellow-brown and 1 inches long. Symptoms of a sting are localized pain, numbness, tingling, and sensitivity to touch, heat and cold. The victim may experience weakness and abdominal cramps. Small children may die of the sting. Treatment should include washing with soap and water, application of ice, an oral analgesic like ibuprofen and a loose, constricting band between the sting and the heart. The victim should be transported to a medical facility for treatment.

    Poison Ivy, Oak, Sumac and Stinging Nettle

    If contact is made with poison ivy, oak or sumac, a rash-inducing oil from the plant will rub off onto the skin. If you suspect you’ve been exposed to one of these plants, do not touch or scratch the exposed area. If you do touch the area, do not touch any other part of the body until the oil gets washed off; otherwise, you will spread the rash. To avoid a rash, wash the area within ten minutes with running cold water, which will neutralize and wash away the oil. Alcohol will help this process, as will a number of cleansing solutions specifically produced to destroy the toxic oil.

    Do not use hot water to wash the oil off. This will open the skin's pores and allow the oil to get in. If the oil is washed off before it has a chance to penetrate the skin, then a rash will not break out. If any articles of clothing also have the oil on them, wash them by themselves with a good detergent.

    If a rash does appear, which is usually between a few hours to a few days after exposure, a number of things can be done to comfort the rash. Not all of these remedies work for every person or every situation, so if one remedy doesn’t work for you, try another.

    The usual topical lotions such as calamine and zinc oxide lotions can be of some help, as can oatmeal baths. Antihistamines may be useful. Ice cubes applied to the rash cool and help stop the itching. A baking soda and water paste can be made to relieve the itching and dry out the sores. The fat in whole milk helps dry out the rash and relieve some itch; apply cold milk to the rash with a cloth. The same can be done with milk of magnesia.

    Another means of treatment is to apply jewelweed juice to the area. The juice from the stem and leaves of the jewelweed soothe the itching and burning of poison ivy and stinging nettle. Jewelweed grows in most of the US except Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

    The rash will persist from five days to five weeks after the rash appears. During this time, blisters will form on the rash. Do not break these blisters, as this might lead to an infection. The blisters will break open on their own and leak or weep a clear, yellowish fluid, which then dries. Eventually the blisters will subside and the rash will go away.

    If the rash covers more than 20 percent to the body or if the rash is in any sensitive areas like the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs or genitals, see a doctor to get a prescription stronger than over-the-counter drugs.

    Other Poisonous Plants

    The list of plants that are toxic to people is too long to include here. Simply put, do not eat any fruit, berries or leaves that are not positively identified as being safe and edible.

    There are many possible symptoms of plant poisoning: fever, headache, dizziness, confusion, burning in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and lips, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, convulsions or hallucinations. If anyone should exhibit these symptoms, call the American Association of Poison Control Centers at 1-800-222-1222 or your local hospital emergency room and try to identify the plant that was eaten. Follow the instructions that are given.