By Andrew Stuart
There’s an old saying that everything in Texas either sticks, pricks, stings or bites you. It’s an exaggeration, but West Texas is a thorny land, and, from cacti to tarantulas, our region’s iconic inhabitants tend to have a certain edge to them. For many, it’s part of the region’s appeal.
Bites and stings from spiders and scorpions generally aren’t a serious hazard here. But these creatures can trigger a visceral fear, and we can’t help but wonder about them. Dr. Sarah Watkins is a professor at El Paso’s Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. From the medical vantage, she’s the source on all things creepy-crawly.
“I have always been interested in toxicology,” Watkins said. “I like bugs and drugs.”
In addition to teaching and ER work, Watkins is a toxicologist with the West Texas Regional Poison Center, which has a 24-hour hotline for poison concerns, including envenomations. She knows bites and stings.
Scorpions are found on every continent but Antarctica – but they’re desert specialists, and scorpion diversity is greatest in arid places. West Texas is home to at least 17 species.
None of those natives pose a threat.
“We expect them to cause some pain,” Watkins said. “They might cause just a little bit of local swelling or redness, but usually these can be managed at home with ice and over-the-counter pain medicines such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen. Really, most people do just fine.”
The Southwest, however, is not without its truly dangerous scorpion. Native to the Sonoran Desert, the Arizona bark scorpion is the continent’s most venomous scorpion. An effective antivenom is now available, but in the 1980s, the creature claimed some 800 lives in northern Mexico.
Young children typically suffer the worst effects – and those effects, Watkins said, are “unmistakable.” They can resemble a seizure – as victims lose control of their arms, legs and eye movements, and foam at the mouth.
Watkins previously worked in Tucson, where bark scorpion stings aren’t uncommon in summer months. But in August 2018, a cluster of the scorpions was found in El Paso, and a 4-year-old child was hospitalized after a sting.
The scorpions may have “hitched a ride” from Arizona on a vehicle. They often live at the base of palm trees – and may have arrived via landscaping plants. An El Paso hospital now stocks the antivenom. Tan, and very small, these scorpions are difficult to detect. They may have gained a foothold here – but they’re not widespread.
Watkins said people often contact the poison center with something they suspect is a spider bite. In most cases it’s a cut or scrape that’s become infected – by the bacteria that lives on every person’s skin.
But there’s little room for doubt if the bite is a black widow’s.
These spiders are found throughout the U.S., but the Western variety is common here. Jet black, with hourglass-shaped red marks on their abdomens, the females do the biting. Fatalities are extremely rare, but bites hurt.
“It’s very painful – you know right away,” Watkins said. “Sometimes you might have just local pain in the area, but it’s pretty common to have pain and muscle spasms and cramps even farther from the bite site. Some unlucky people get cramping pain throughout their body. A lot of times people do end up coming to the hospital – because of how severe the pain is.”
Black widows are often found in summer months near homes – in garages, or woodpiles. Their webs are distinctive for their messy, disorganized appearance. Watkins said webs near homes should be removed – carefully.
The brown recluse spider – Loxosceles reclusa – has a bad reputation. Its bite can, in rare cases, cause necrosis, or skin death. Less dangerous spiders of the same genus live in the Chihuahuan Desert, and while the “true recluse” prefers wetter climes, Midland/ Odessa is the southwestern edge of its range. With any recluse bite, medical attention is prudent.
Tarantulas, of course, are a fixture here. They’re big spiders, with big fangs – and their bites are painful. But they aren’t a concern medically – Watkins said she’s never had to treat a tarantula bite.
Stinging and biting are a last defense, and all these creatures would rather avoid than envenomate us. Being mindful – especially in summer months – minimizes the chances of a bad experience. Like other West Texas denizens, spiders and scorpions need to be given their space.
The poison center’s 24/7 hotline is 1-800-222-1222.