You wake up one morning with a weird bump on your arm. It itches like crazy and you swear you saw an eight-legged insect crawl away, licking its little lips. Steady on, Spider-Man… it’s probably not as serious as you think. 

‘People often see a small wound like this and think it’s a spider bite. The truth is, it’s usually just a boil,’ says Dr Hubert Adendorf, a general practitioner at Mediclinic Highveld in Kriel, Mpumalanga. It’s common mistake, though.

‘At first, a lot of doctors might also regard it as a spider bite, when – in at least nine out of 10 cases – it’s really just a plain, straight-forward boil. Every little boil, the patient will regard as being a spider bite, which is nonsense. If I see two real spider bites a year, it’s a lot… and I see up to 50 or 60 patients a day.’ So how can you tell the difference between a bite and a boil?

‘A spider bite is usually superficial, so it’s just a little blister,’ Dr Adendorf explains, ‘while a boil has a single necrosis and a central infected area.’ Still, if you’re not comfortable about that strange little pimple, go see a doctor. You could suffer an allergic reaction and repeated scratching could also lead to infection.

Dr Adendorf says this happens often with otherwise-harmless flea bites: ‘They’ll only go septic if a child (or adult!) with dirty fingernails starts scratching the sore, causing an infection under the skin.’

Dr Adendorf studied agriculture and has a background in entomology (the study of insects). He says that, despite the horror stories you may have heard, only a handful of the spider species we get in South Africa are really dangerous.

The worst you might encounter is the Button Spider (or Black Widow), which is black with a trademark red hourglass shape on its back. Other arachnids to watch out for include the Violin Spider (brown with a dark, violion-shaped mark on its body); Sac Spider (small and yellow with a black head); and Baboon Spiders (big, hairy and hard to miss!).

Look out for more on insect bites in our upcoming issue of Mediclinic Family from the beginning of June. 

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.