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Superstitions surrounding spiders were reported in Greek mythology when the jealous goddess Aphrodite transformed Arachne into a spider. In the 17th century, southern Europe experienced a panic over the bite of a spider that is thought to have been a type of wolf spider, and a dance called the "tarantella" was devised to protect bite victims. Much of the folklore concerning bites by large hairy spiders (most of which are harmless) originated from this era.

Black widow spiders are probably the most feared in the United States. They are found throughout the continental United States and are usually recognized by the glossy black and orange coloring. The black widow spider has a species-specific red marking on its abdomen. The female is one of the largest of spiders, with a body ranging up to 1/2-inch long with a leg span of up to 2 inches. It is precisely this large size that allows the female black widow's fangs to be able to penetrate human skin. The female black widow may live as long as three years.The male is only one-third the size of the female. Contrary to myth, the male usually mates safely with the female. Because of his small size, the male's fangs are incapable of penetrating human skin, so most bites are from the female. Black widow spiders produce one of the most potent known venoms by volume.

The venom is chiefly a neurotoxin in humans, with symptoms most often manifested as severe muscle pain and cramping.

An ice pack may help until medical care is given. The antivenin isusually given only to children, those with pre-existing cardiovascular disease, those with unusually severe symptoms or pregnant. The antivenin will give relief within one to three hours.

Frequent cleaning to remove spiders and their webs from outbuildings, buildings and outdoor living areas will decrease the chance of accidental contact with this spider. Insecticides may decrease the population of the food for the black widows but do not usually affect the spiders.

A study of 163 black widow spider bite cases found that 61 percent of the victims were male, 58 percent were bitten at their residence, 15 percent were bitten by a spider that was in their clothing or shoes as they dressed. Six percent were bitten in bed. Bites happened most often on the legs. The average time from the bite until onset of symptoms was 75 to 100 minutes. The most common complaint was muscular, abdominal, back and leg pain.

Alton Thygerson is a professor of health sciences at Brigham Young University.