What It’s Really Like to Be Bitten by a Redback Spider

I think you know what’s coming. But before that, an important message.

I realise that some of you may have found this page because you have just been bitten by a Redback Spider and you want to know what to do. You are looking for urgent medical advice.

Here it is…

Redback Spider First Aid AdviseOn with the post. This is the story of when I was bitten, what it was like and why I didn’t go to hospital. I did seek medical advice though, speaking to a doctor and you will be able to read the advice I was given.

Finally, in the comments below you will find stories from many people who have been bitten by the redback and how it was for them.

The Australian Redback Spider

One of Australia’s most feared spiders is the Redback. Just before I moved here to Australia, one of my friends back in the UK who had lived and worked in Australia for a year at some point, told me that Redbacks were so strong and powerful that they could actually bite your foot through your thongs. (That’s flip-flops to us English).

Dave, you were talking twaddle!

But what is it really like to be bitten by a Redback Spider? The chances of finding out are quite remote, most sources quote around 2,000 Redback bites occur in Australia each year. So by my maths I would have a one in 10,000 chance of finding out.

Lucky, lucky me……… On Saturday, I found out!

So here’s what happened. On Saturday at around four o’clock in the afternoon, as the sun was getting cooler, I decided to do a bit of tidying up in the garden. It’s autumn here and a perfect time for trimming back the weeds and the overgrowth just ahead of winters dry weather.

By about a 5:45 PM I’d finished chopping off all the excess growths and I was picking up all of my trimmings in large bunches, carrying them up the driveway and throwing them all into one big pile. It was getting quite dark so I couldn’t really see much.

All of a sudden, whilst transporting one of these bunches I became aware of intense pain in the back of my wrist. The pain grew quite fast and although I have never hammered a nail into any part of my body, this was how I imagined it would feel.

As the pain grew even more, I decided to go in doors and take a look at it under the light. This is what I saw……

redback biteNothing!

Well, if anything, a very very tiny barely visible white mosquito bite like bump was all I could see. But the area around the pain was starting to look red and flushed.

Then it started to sweat, but just in that little circle where the pain was, nowhere else. I’ve never seen anything like it. I took a shower…….. that’s just something I like to do now and then…… and I washed off all the sweat at the same time. But out of the shower after having dried myself, I watched as the beads of sweat formed another circle around the back of my wrist again.

But by now the intense nail penetration like pain of before was fading, which was good news. But that pain was being replaced by a new, burning pain, which was bad news. But given the choice though, I preferred the burning.

Intrigued, I decided I would ask Google Australia what had bitten me, so I searched for “identify bite sweat” because for me, the localised sweating was the identifying factor. And that’s when I discovered that most of my search results led to the Redback Spider bite.

“Can’t be,” I thought “those things kill!” (Well, they haven’t since 1956.)

The more I read about the Redback bite, the more likely it seemed that it was a Redback that bit me.

  • Bites occur typically when the spider is disturbed in the garden or shed. (Tick)
  • The initial bite may not be felt. (Tick)
  • Puncture marks are not always visible. (Tick)
  • Local intense pain follows after about five minutes. (Tick, probably, I didn’t feel the bite remember.)
  • Localised sweating often occurs around the bite. (Tick)
  • May cause a burning sensation. (Tick)

By now it was around 6:30 PM and many of the websites I had visited advised anyone bitten to seek immediate medical attention. But I was feeling just fine and to be truthful, the pain subsided and was now really quite manageable. My only symptom was still the red flushing, some burning and the 2 inch circle of sweaty and very sticky skin.

But I had also read in my research that the Redback Spider’s venom was very slow acting and took a long time to find its way around your body. I didn’t like the idea of turning green and warty at midnight and thinking “Dang! I should have got some antivenom.” So I telephoned my doctor who was very helpful last time we had an emergency out of hours.

My Doctors Advice

He was out but his wife (also a doctor) answered the phone and she was very helpful. Here’s what she had to say….

Lots of people get bitten by Redback Spiders and for most it is not a problem. It is only a very small minority who suffer a reaction and if it is going to happen, it will happen within around three hours. So the next couple of hours are critical. If you suffer from palpitations, nausea, vomiting, headaches, difficulty breathing, abdominal pains or a fever any time before 9 PM, get yourself to a hospital. We don’t carry the antivenom here at our local surgery.

Take an antihistamine tablet if you have one, use an ice pack to ease the pain if you want to and drink plenty of water.

Well I didn’t take an antihistamine, I didn’t use an ice pack but I did take some of her advice about drinking plenty of water. When I say “some”, I took note of the “drink plenty” part and ignored the “of water”. I hit the beer fridge!

Well, that’s what happened when I got bitten by a Redback Spider. Was it a Redback? Well, just after I came off of the phone to the doctor, Beninoz and his family arrived. We were having a slap up a pizza together. Yum!

Before I told him anything of my research, I showed him the bite and asked him what he thought it was. “Redback” was his answer. The next day I spoke to Lisa, a born and bred Aussie who was bitten by a Redback when she was a little girl.

Did you get the burning? Did you get the intense pain? Was there no sign of an actual bite? Sounds like a Redback to me.” was her verdict.

Medical disclaimer!

I can never be 100% certain it was a Redback bite, but I would say I am 90% sure. For me, it was nowhere near as bad as I would have thought it would be. Getting bitten by a Redback Spider would have ranked really high on my list of things NOT to do. Now that it has happened, well, it wasn’t so bad.

Maybe I’m just lucky I’m not one of the minority who react badly, maybe my Redback was just a tiny little Redback, maybe my Redback got brushed off of my wrist before she had finished envenomation, or maybe my Redback wasn’t a Redback at all.

Either way, my experience wasn’t that bad. But according to my research, around 250 Redback Spider antivenom are administered each year here in Australia. So it sounds to me like over 10% of those bitten do react badly and will need medical attention, which is what many websites recommend that you seek. Which is, I suppose, what I did, having phoned my doctor.

So I am not going against the advice given in any other website, I’m just letting you know what happened to me. If it had been my daughter who was bitten, she’d have been straight off to hospital. But I will say that the Redback Spider bite, for some, may well not be anywhere near as bad as you thought it would be.

If you’ve been bitten by a Redback Spider, I’d love to hear if you think it was a Redback that bit me. What was your experience like? There’s no need to register, just enter your comment below.

Did anything else happen on Saturday? Yes, actually it did. And this event really should have ended in death. But I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.

redback spider

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Update: December 2013

Redback Spider antivenom doesn’t work!

Yes, apparently it’s true. We had a comment from Jenn below (19th of December 2013) who had been bitten by a Redback Spider and despite being in some quite obvious trouble, the doctors treating her did not use antivenom.

They gave her steroids, antihistamines, she was put on a nebuliser and I believe also given adrenaline. But no antivenom. This surprised me so I did a little research, and found an article from just last month by ABC News.

That’s comforting, isn’t it? It will be interesting to see how this one develops.

Update: March 2014

Not so fast! Let’s get a second opinion on this from a doctor who has treated many envenomated patients over the years. See what he has to say in my post…

Update: May 2014

There was one more question I wished I had asked in the above-mentioned interview, but I forgot. It’s a question that has also been raised and answered in the comments below, but it would have been lovely to have got the opinion of an expert such as Professor Julian White.

Fortunately for me I got a second chance, and you can read the answer by visiting the following post…

Update: February 2018

I’m sure my doctors advice was pretty accurate for most cases, but it seems there are always exceptions to the general rules. If you look at a comment made below by John Cliff, February 23, 2018, 9:53 pm, he suffered a scary reaction to his Redback bite more than 24 hours after the event. So, in his case, the reaction didn’t happen “within around three hours“.

Fortunately for John, antivenin from the hospital saved the day.

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{ 418 comments… add one }
  • Patricia Dennis July 3, 2018, 4:56 pm | Link

    This morning I was in the garden and felt something sting or bite my thumb (underneath on the fleshy part). I reacted and saw briefly a very small black insect which I presumed was an ant. I then went to the shopping centre and on the way my thumb started to feel painful. I then thought I had been bitten by a bee (this has happened to me four times in the past three years) but there was no stinger. After six hours, my thumb was still feeling sore, swollen but not unbearable. We do have red backs in our garden so I then presumed I had been bitten by a baby one. If this is the case, this is the first time in 52 years of living in Australia and also in the 41 years we have lived in our present home. For myself, I’m a great believer in using Dettol for cuts, bites, etc. so I have just dipped my thumb in undiluted Dettol and the soreness has eased a great deal.

    • BobinOz July 5, 2018, 8:53 pm | Link

      Firstly Patricia, I hope you are feeling better and the pain is easing. From what you say though, I don’t think this was a redback spider, I can’t member anybody mentioning any swelling at all here. Most people report a round red sticky patch about the size of a 20 cent coin.

      So I think it was something else that bit you, and my guess, for what it’s worth, would probably be what your first guess was, an ant. Hopefully the Dettol will sort it out.

  • Ouch June 19, 2018, 12:10 pm | Link

    Got bitten a week ago today and it still burns like hell. It seemed to get better after a few days but now it’s getting worse again. Is this normal? Went to hospital and they didn’t do much. I’m also pregnant. Not sure how that affects things, but hospital didn’t seem concerned. I just really want this pain to stop. I can barely sleep and can’t stand the feel of the blanket on my skin. Vinegar is only thing that relieves the pain but only while it’s on it.

    • Theresa June 19, 2018, 4:41 pm | Link

      There may be nothing they can do and the pain should eventually stop but, as you are pregnant, I would see my doctor. Sincerely hope you feel better soon.

      • BobinOz June 19, 2018, 7:31 pm | Link

        Yes, I think it is common for the pain to seemingly go away for a bit and then come back again. I think one person even said they still get the pain still returning a bit after a year or so. I think this is rare though and for most people the pain goes away completely within three or four.

        Let’s hope you fall into that category. Some people in these comments have suggested taking an over-the-counter antihistamine can help, so that could worth a go.

        Good advice Theresa, but Ouch has been to the hospital, one would have hoped they would have said something if they thought it was a problem.

        • Ouch June 19, 2018, 9:00 pm | Link

          Thanks, good to know it’s normal I guess! It was always worse at night too but now it seems to be constant all day long. I’ve switched to ice which gives total relief but only when on it. Second I take it off, it comes back. That would be amazing if it helped, hope pharmacist says it’s okay to take while preg. Yeah, hopefully I won’t be in the group that still gets problems after a year since mine hasn’t resolved in 3-4 days 🙁

          • Ouch June 19, 2018, 9:06 pm | Link

            Should say I also feel fluey, sore muscles, headache, light sensitivity and feverish since the pain got worse again, but that could be something else. Seems weird for systemic envenomation symptoms to have such a delayed onset (6-7 days)?

            • BobinOz June 20, 2018, 5:43 pm | Link

              Quite a few people have mentioned headaches, various other aches and fluey symptoms, but only a couple of people have mentioned feeling feverish after being bitten; for example John Cliff February 23, 2018, 9:53 pm and Pete December 27, 2017, 6:27 am. You can track them down on the previous comment pages. Of the two, John went to hospital and got antivenom, so if that fever doesn’t go away, I would certainly be seeking medical attention if I were you.

              • Ouch June 20, 2018, 6:59 pm | Link

                Thanks Bob. Seems the symptoms are related to bite because as pain of bite has decreased (today) so have the symptoms. Feels like my immune system reacting to the venom. Though reducing, pain still bad so not out of woods yet. Going to try antihistamines and see how I go as I don’t think hospital will be particularly helpful.

                • BobinOz June 21, 2018, 7:55 pm | Link

                  If you do try antihistamines, it would be interesting to hear how that goes.

                  • Ouch June 21, 2018, 9:08 pm | Link

                    Hi Bob. Strangely, the antihistamines made my pain worse! Really suffering and about ready to chop my hand off today. 9 days since bite. Other symptoms seem to have subsided though.

                    • BobinOz June 22, 2018, 4:18 pm | Link

                      Gosh, that is strange. Please don’t chop your hand off though, pretty sure that won’t help. 🙂

  • Gemma Garner April 30, 2018, 2:08 pm | Link

    We have them all over the garden and my kids know how to identify them and stsy out of their way. Whilst camping however my 8 year old had the classic red back on the toilet seat experience. unfortunately for us we did not realise that was what it was. He did not recall a bite, see a spider and there was no real bite mark visible till 15 hours later. The fact tbat we kept discounting it as a redback bite was a real problem as we could have managed his pain much better. He is a pretty tough kid but he was in unbearable agony for about 12 hours and no pain releif helped at all. We ended up in Neurology at Westmead with a child with no reflexes in his legs and unable to walk at all. A terrifying ordeal, do not underestmate the toxicity of the redback venom. This was a over a month ago and he still has itching at the site and some leg cramping. He also had incredibly red swollen eyes at the time which I havent read about elsewhere. Thanks fot the great advice on here. Wish I had done the antihistamine and icepack or the hospital had could have reduced his pain.

    • BobinOz April 30, 2018, 7:29 pm | Link

      Crikey, that does sound terrifying, must have been a very frightening time. We’ve had a lot of people comment here mentioning a lot of different symptoms, but as you say, no one has talked about red swollen eyes and I don’t think anyone has reported losing the reflexes in their legs and being unable to walk.

      We’ve had a few people saying the soles of their feet or their heels have been painful to walk on, but not that. When I was bitten, I didn’t feel the bite either, so I can understand how easy it is to not know what has happened.

      Glad to hear you got to the bottom of it (no pun intended, honestly) and that your boy is making good progress and I hope he makes an absolutely full recovery very soon.

  • Steve April 2, 2018, 5:46 pm | Link

    I got bitten on the top of my foot today, at first it was like a pin prick feeling, then on kicking off my thong i noticed a redback fall onto the floor, he was quickly dealt with by the other thong!
    No real pain for 5 minutes, but then a sharp pain at the top of my leg in my groin area which progressively got worse.
    After heading to the hospital and being examined i was given Panadol and anti inflammatories, told to rest it and keep it iced. Doctor reckoned a couple of days and should be ok, and that they only give anti venom if the person is affected severely.
    After a few hours the pain in my groin faded but the bite area continued to burn whenever not being iced.
    Hope the pain goes soon.

    • BobinOz April 2, 2018, 7:29 pm | Link

      Yes, quite a few people have mentioned that the pain can spread to the groin area, which I imagine is wholly unpleasant. Antivenom is only given in extreme circumstances because it itself can actually cause a bad reaction in some patients.

      So Panadol and anti-inflammatories along with ice is the best course of action, and as mentioned below by Theresa, it may be worth taking an over-the-counter antihistamine as well.

      Hope you get well soon.

    • Steve April 3, 2018, 6:29 pm | Link

      The next day the burning feeling in the area of the bite subsided but a severe aching in all joints and my shins are now constant and this makes sleeping not possible.

      • BobinOz April 5, 2018, 8:30 pm | Link

        It always amazes me how such a small critter can inflict so much pain from a tiny bite. Many people have mentioned aching joints, but for most it is gone within a week. Hope yours does too.

  • Collette April 2, 2018, 11:49 am | Link

    Hi, we were away travelling in our caravan and I had been sitting outside in the sun. I went inside and flopped on the bed and it was then I felt something crawling on my arm. I didn’t initially look bit just moved my are, thinking it was probably an ant or fly. Shortly after I felt a rapidly increasing burning sensation. I lifted my sleeve to reveal the redback. I flicked it off and pushed a pillow on to it. I then grabbed a tissue to wrap around it. The burning was very intense and radiating but I could not see any visible bite mark. I grabbed a cold face washer and placed on the bite. The redness spread up and down from the elbow. After consulting dr Google and given we were some ways from a hospital I decided to sit it out and make the call to head in if things got worse. I didn’t get any sleep due to the burning sensation which remained intense. There was no nausea, shakes or other symptoms. However, the next day I went to a pharmacist who suggested a combined pain relief with Panadol and ibuprofen as well as an antiseptic cream. I took the tablets and applied the cream for the next 24 hours but as the drugs begin to wear off the pain is returning. I hope that things subside soon.

    • Theresa April 2, 2018, 3:20 pm | Link

      The best over the counter treatment I have heard for these bites,if you have a reaction, is to as soon as possible take some antihistamine pills. The same type of pill you take for hay-fever such as claratyne. Anti-histamines can have quite a miraculous affect on many insect bite skin reactions and a number of people here have taken them for red-back bites and had relief. I am surprised that the pharmacist did not make this suggestion.

      • BobinOz April 2, 2018, 7:25 pm | Link

        Hi Collette

        Yes, hopefully the pain will go away soon, it usually does, but unfortunately for some people it can hang around. I truly hope you are not one of them. As Theresa says (hi Theresa), it might be worthwhile taking an antihistamine as well as pain relief, applying ice to the wound is also good.

        Theresa, I’m not sure why the pharmacist didn’t suggest antihistamines either, but then again neither did my doctor when I spoke to her after being bitten. Not sure why, but I do know other people have mentioned that antihistamines have helped them in these comments, so it does appear to be worthwhile.

  • Theresa March 30, 2018, 3:15 pm | Link

    I must have put my hand into a nest of redbacks under a rock while gardening. I suddenly felt two bites, fortunately through my gardening glove, and quickly pulled the affected glove off. I saw at least 4 spiders hanging on to my gloves. Only two managed to bite me. I did not know that they travelled in packs.
    Probably due to the garden gloves and being able to pull the glove off my hand immediately I felt the two bites (hurt like sonofabitch), could not see the bites. Put my hand in iced water which helped a lot. The pain subsided after about 4 hours but I still got phantom pain every now and then for a couple of days.
    I did not know they could kill you or I may have panicked more. I just expected the pain to ease after a while which it did. Most likely the glove stopped some of the venom getting into me. Hope I never get bitten again. There are hundreds of redbacks around this property and I will try to look where I put my hands in future. Bit paranoid these days.

    • BobinOz April 2, 2018, 6:39 pm | Link

      Potentially, yes, they can kill you, but it is highly unlikely. Always worth taking care to avoid them though, because as you say, it does hurt. Garden gloves are definitely a good idea.

  • Andrey March 12, 2018, 11:24 pm | Link

    Wow, this is probably the biggest collection of Red Back’s encounters. I will add mine from Adelaide. Today around 3.15pm went out to dump a bag of rubbish in the bin which is based at the end of our backyard. Quickly jumped into my thongs and walked towards then bin. In the middle of my trip felt like a got a weed in the left thong so as usual shook the foot to get rid of it and saw a red back falling out. Smashed it straight away and realized that the weed was a bite. I never had such experience before, started to examine the area on my foot but couldn’t find even where I got bitten. In 10 minutes I started to feel like it was a mosquito bite so decided to call 131126 poison hotline and the lady who picked up the phone asked how do I feel myself. I said OK. She said watch it, apply an ice-pack and take panadol if it will become worse, go to the hospital. So, now it is 11.50pm and freaking painful while i’m writing this. The bite area became red with visible center of the bite. Cannot sleep, pain relief doesn’t work at all. Will see how it will progress tomorrow.

    • BobinOz March 13, 2018, 7:00 pm | Link

      Sounds like you had a pretty bad bite there, I hope you managed to get some sleep last night. If the pain has got worse since you make that telephone call, maybe you should go into the hospital?

      My bins are also in my backyard, and I often put rubbish out at night and walk to it barefoot. The bins aren’t far from my back door, about 10 metres, and it is concrete, so I’ve never felt the need. Maybe I will now and it won’t be thongs.

      Hope you’re feeling better today, let us know how it ended up if you get the chance.

      • Andrey March 15, 2018, 6:02 pm | Link

        Just started to get a relief today. Did not sleep that night at all, was sweating like crazy both legs were literally leaking. Went to an ED in the morning and they said that antivenom may be dangerous for me as there is a risk of having an anaphylactic shock. They watched me for a day then let me go home with strong pain relief drugs. Thought that at least I will be able to get a bit of a sleep but Drugs worked only for 1 hour then the pain was coming back and sweating increased. So no sleep at all 2nd night. After not sleeping 2 nights I felt myself very bad and decided to consult with local gp to get some drawsy pills. And he gave me really good antihistamine, don’t remember that name but can check it out that really worked even better than the pain killers. After one pill I was sleeping for 14 hours and sweating is gone for now. Now I feel like I have a flue with weakness in my body and a bit of a headache. GP said that I will recover by Sunday.

        • BobinOz March 16, 2018, 4:14 pm | Link

          That’s good news, looks like those antihistamines have worked well for you. I do know that the antivenom is only given if it is desperately needed, as there can be some bad reactions. Sounds like you are on the mend, albeit a little slowly, but hopefully you’ll be all clear of it soon.

          • Andrey March 16, 2018, 7:58 pm | Link

            I hope so! And thanks for the article and all the comments. They really help!

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