When Gabe Lustman woke up with a swollen spot on his leg a few weeks ago, he had no idea he would wind up in a hospital for nearly a week due to a spider bite.
Lustman, a pop and R&B singer based in Atlanta, Georgia, doesn’t know when or how he was bitten, but said doctors confirmed it was a brown recluse spider, a species predominantly seen in the south-central and midwestern areas of the U.S.
Similar to the, another venomous species found in the U.S., brown recluse spiders aren’t categorized as aggressive and typically only bite when threatened.
And while they can both be life-threatening, death is rare.
“Young children, people who are very ill, and older people may not survive a bite,” the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus says.
For people of any age, the bites can be quite dangerous, says Dr. Adam Friedman, professor and chair of dermatology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
“Certainly, identifying the spider is helpful as the brown recluse has a unique appearance, with a yellow to brown color and a fiddle or violin shaped mark on its back,” he says. They typically grow to between 1 and 1 1/2 inches long (2.5 to 3.5 centimeters). Friedman adds that these spiders like dark, warm, dry spaces like attics or under wood piles.
Brown recluse spider bite symptoms
Lustman, 30, described the ordeal as “excruciating pain.”
“My leg was very sore, and I noticed like a little bite mark but my whole leg was starting to swell up and it was turning red and purplish and like all these nasty colors,” he told CBS News, adding he would elevate it for a bit of short-lived relief. “(There was) sharp pain shooting down my leg when I would stand up.”
Later, he said, the redness extended into streak marks that looked like someone scratched along his leg.
The Mayo Clinic notes that “spreading redness or red streaks” are a sign to seek medical care immediately, as are severe pain, abdominal cramping, a growing wound at the bite site or trouble breathing or swallowing.
What can make these bites tricky is they aren’t always felt at first.
“The bite may be painless. However, the patient may develop redness, a blister and eventual tissue death,” Friedman explains.
Systemic reactions can occur and can be severe in children, he adds. Those symptoms can include fever, chills, vomiting, joint pain, blood in urine and possible shock and death.
Though the symptoms worried him, Lustman brushed it off for 48 hours before he decided to get medical attention — and now he’s thankful he didn’t wait any longer.
“I came in at a very, very lucky time,” he said. “Because if I didn’t, I could have lost my leg.”
Doctors told him another 24 to 48 hours could have allowed the infection to spread to the point of being “uncontrollable.”
Can you treat a brown recluse spider bite?
While there is no antidote to this venom specifically, according to the National Capital Poison Center, treatment includes treating the wound and preventing infection.
“Overall these bites are uncommon but quick medical attention is recommended for all,” Friedman says, advising that any bite associated with systemic symptoms warrants immediate medical care.
“Progressively worsening pain, versus itch and skin breakdown, should also push one to seek care,” he adds.
After a series of antibiotic treatments and monitoring, Lustman says he’s feeling better now but still has some tenderness in the bite area.
“I can walk again, but when I touch my leg, if I bump it or something, it’s still painful,” he says.
His advice to others? Don’t wait and listen to your body.
“Make sure you go to seek professional medical attention, because if I didn’t, I could have lost my leg,” he said. “This is your body, you need to attend to it and take care of it, because you don’t know how serious these things can really get and how how bad it could be — I didn’t realize that.”