Debunking Myths About the Brown Recluse Spider

This spider has a reputation that isn't totally accurate

So many lies are told about the brown recluse spider, Loxosceles reclusa— possibly more than any other arthropod in North America. Public hysteria about this shy spider has been fueled by media hype and medical misdiagnosis. It's time to set the record straight and dispel some myths, urban legends, and some full-blown mistakes.

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Where They Live

Range of Loxosceles (recluse) spiders in the U.S.
Range of Loxosceles (recluse) spiders in the U.S. Red area highlights the range of the brown recluse spider, Loxosceles reclusa. Map provided by Rick Vetter, University of California-Riverside. Used with permission.

The range of the brown recluse spider is limited to the red area on this map. If you live outside this area, brown recluse spiders do not live in your state. Period.

Rick Vetter of the University of California challenged people to send him spiders they believed were brown recluses. Of 1,779 arachnids submitted from 49 states, only four brown recluse spiders came from outside its known range. One was found in a California home; the owners had just moved from Missouri. The remaining three spiders were found in a shed in coastal Virginia. Attempts to find more brown recluses in the area came up empty, suggesting an isolated population of unknown origin.

If you see a brown spider that has banding on its legs or spiny-looking legs, it's not a brown recluse.

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You Can't Lose Limbs From a Bite

Most brown recluse bites heal fine without medical intervention.
Most brown recluse bites heal fine without medical intervention. Some may cause necrotic wounds that take months to heal and cause some scarring. Photo: CDC

The majority of confirmed brown recluse bites do not result in serious skin lesions. In those patients whose lesions do become necrotic, a full two-thirds heal without complications. The worst lesions may take several months to heal and leave significant scarring, but the risk of loss of limbs from a brown recluse bite is just about nil.

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Deaths From Brown Recluse Bites

According to Dr. Phillip Anderson, a Missouri physician and recognized authority on brown recluse bites, there has never been a verifiable death as a result of a brown recluse spider bite in North America. End of story.

Many bites from a brown recluse are no worse than a bee sting.

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Brown Recluse Spiders Don't Attack

Brown recluse spiders do not attack people; they defend themselves when disturbed. A brown recluse is more inclined to flee than to fight. Brown recluse spiders are (as their name suggests) reclusive. They hide in cardboard boxes, wood piles, or even laundry left on the floor. When someone disturbs their hideout, the spider may bite in defense. People who have been bitten by a brown recluse often report that they put on an article of clothing in which the spider was hiding. Inspect clothing or bedding that you haven't used in a while, especially if it was stored away.

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You Can't Tell the Bite Without the Spider

Photo: CDC

Unless you bring the suspect spider to the doctor and the doctor wisely sends the spider to an arachnologist for identification, there is no way to prove a wound was caused by a brown recluse spider. Many other medical conditions cause wounds similar to brown recluse bites, including Lyme disease, burns, diabetic ulcers, allergies, poison oak, poison ivy, bacterial infections (including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA), lymphoma, reactions to chemicals, and even herpes. Bites could also be from fleas or bedbugs. If your doctor diagnoses you with a brown recluse bite without seeing the spider, you should question the doctor, especially if you live outside of the brown recluse spiders' range.