Engbretson Underwater Photography

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News From Behind the Scenes at Engbretson Underwater Photo and Stories about the Freshwater Environments We Visit.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

There's a Poisonous Spider in Your Wetsuit!

It was a normal day much like any other. I drove from my home in northern Wisconsin to a nearby lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to take underwater pictures of largemouth bass.  The water was clear, the fish eagerly posed for my cameras and another successful dive trip was in the books. While changing out of my wetsuit I noticed what I thought at the time was a mosquito bite on the calf of my leg. I work in lakes and rivers every day, so dealing with insect bites are routine. I didn’t think anything of it. The next morning, the bite seemed to look a little odd and I took this picture of it.

By the end of the day, it was clear that the bite was infected and looking worse. The doctor I saw that evening told me it was likely a non-venomous spider bite. She prescribed a dose of antibiotics, bandaged it and sent me on my way. Three days later, I was in the emergency room. My entire leg was severely swollen and had turned bright red. The area around the bite was badly infected and turning black. ER doctors peppered me with questions and determined that the bite had come from a Brown Recluse Spider, one of three venomous spiders we have in the USA.

The bite of brown recluse spiders contain a potentially deadly hemotoxic venom.  These toxins destroy red blood cells, disrupt blood clotting and cause tissue damage.  We’ve all heard terrifying stories of what can happen to people who are bitten by brown recluse spiders. The worst cases, the ones that get all the press, are indeed horrifying.

In the ER, I was immediately placed on a powerful antibiotic IV drip. The prescription antibiotics I had been taking are ineffective against venomous spider bites. They were replaced by a much stronger type. I was also prescribed another drug that is typically used to treat leprosy, to help prevent possible tissue loss.  

The doctor who examined me speculated that my wetsuit had caused compression on my leg that may have exasperated the effects of the bite and the amount of venom the spider had injected.  Did the spider somehow get into my wetsuit while I was at the lake, or did it crawl inside the suit while it hung in its regular place in my basement laundry room?  Who knows? 

It’s been four weeks and my wound is barely noticeable now. I consider myself lucky that I won’t have a permanent scoop mark or divot in my leg. Scuba diving has inherent risks and dangers, but until now, I never thought those risks also included poisonous spider bites. 

From now on, I’ll be diligent where I store my wetsuit between dives. More importantly, I think it’s critical to carefully check your wetsuit, dive boots, gloves, and all your dive equipment before every use. They all provide the kind of dark and secluded hiding places spiders like to inhabit, especially if they’re routinely stored in your basement or garage.