About two months ago, country singer Meghan Linsey woke up to a nightmare: She had an "awful" stinging pain in her face, and a dying spider in her hand. The singer, a runner-up on the 2015 season of The Voice, had been bitten by a brown recluse in her sleep.
"The swelling was the first thing, and then I ended up just having crazy, crazy symptoms," Linsey told PEOPLE. "I had muscle spasms, and I had a body rash all over." Nine days after she was bitten, she developed an open wound around the bite, which she called "a hole on my face."
With treatment, Linsey is slowly healing. She's been documenting her recovery on social media, and says she's "glad to be alive" after the traumatic experience.
A brown recluse bite can indeed be fatal if not treated, especially in children, and experts are praising Linsey for educating people about the venomous arachnids. "She's doing a great job of turning a negative experience into a positive," says Jon Dyer, MD, a dermatologist in Columbia, Missouri, who specializes in treating these spider bites.
The wound on Linsey's face is not a common reaction, and brown recluse bites in general are rare, says Dr. Dyer. But it's important to be aware of the dangerous critters, he says, especially if you live in in the south central or southeastern United States or the Midwest, where the spiders are found. Below, experts share what you need to know in case of a bite, and how to avoid the spiders in the first place.
If you get bit, try to save the spider
Linsey put the brown recluse that bit her in a plastic bag, and brought it with her to an urgent care center, which likely sped up her diagnosis and treatment. Showing the spider to your doctor can be very helpful, says John Wolf, MD, chairman of the department of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. While it's easy to ID a brown recluse (by its six eyes and the violin-shaped mark on its back), it's much more difficult to figure out what type of spider was responsible for a mystery bite.
To complicate matters, brown recluse bites are typically not very painful at first. "Initially, people might not even know they've been bitten, so they might not know to be looking for a spider," says Dr. Wolf.
A bite can cause a range of symptoms
A visible bite may have a "red, white, and blue" appearance, says Dr. Dyer. The outer areas of the bite are typically red and inflamed with some swelling. The inside is typically paler; and the very center of the bite may be purplish or bruised-looking. "There can be a lot of variability, but most bites keep to some element of this appearance," says Dr. Dyer.
Later, the venom can cause other symptoms, such as fever, muscle aches, itching, headache, chills, and a full-body rash.
Another possible side effect is a wound like Linsey's: "After the initial bite, necrosis, or death of the surrounding skin, can occur," explains Esther Freeman, MD, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and member of the American Academy of Dermatology. Dr. Freeman hasn't treated Linsey, but says the singer's photos reflect the typical pattern of necrosis.
In more severe cases, hemolysis (rupturing of red blood cells) or kidney failure can occur, says Dr. Freeman.
Depending on the severity of the bite and where it's located, it can take weeks or even months to heal. But not everyone has a reaction as extreme as Linsey's. The severity of her wound was likely because the bite occurred on her face, says Dr. Wolf, who has also not treated Linsey. "If you get bitten on the arm or leg, it may cause an ulcer, but on the face you can end up with very nasty scarring after the ulceration heals," he says.
And sometimes, he adds, bites heal without causing any real injury.
You should seek medical treatment immediately
If you think you've been bitten by a brown recluse, apply ice and head straight to your doctor's office or the ER. A doctor will likely put a cold compress on the area, apply an anti-inflammatory cortisone cream, and test your urine for systemic side effects, says Dr. Wolf. The most common treatment for brown recluse bites is an antibiotic called Dapsone. Hyperbaric chambers treatment may also be used to speed up wound healing.
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Keep an eye out for spiders in dark, dry places
True to their name, brown recluse spiders are reclusive and shy. They tend to hide in dark, dry places, such as garages, wood piles, and cellars. To protect yourself, use caution when slipping on shoes you haven't worn in awhile, picking up items of clothing that have been sitting on the ground for a long time, or carrying a load of lumber or firewood.
"Most of the time when [these spiders] bite, it's an accident," says Dr. Wolf. "They're not trying to bite you, they're trying to stay away."