It's a tourist's worst nightmare: A 22-year-old Dutch woman who was bitten by a spider while vacationing in Italy had a chunk of her ear liquefied by the spider's venom, according to a case study published in the Journal of Plastic, Reconstructive & Aesthetic Surgery.
According to a report on the case on the LiveScience
Website, the woman woke up with pain in her ear, without knowing she'd been bitten by a Mediterranean recluse spider. She sought treatment for her pain in an Italian hospital, where doctors prescribed an antihistamine. But the swelling and pain didn't get any better and, once she was back home in the Netherlands, portions of her ear turned black — indicating the skin and cartilage cells were dead.
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Doctors then determined the woman had been bitten by a recluse spider, whose bite is known to destroy skin and underlying fat, causing "sunken-in" scars or "a disfigured ear, if you are very unlucky," said Dr. Marieke van Wijk, a plastic surgeon in the Netherlands who treated the woman and co-wrote the journal report. Van Wijk and her colleagues removed the dead tissue, and recreated it using cartilage from the woman's ribs.
Van Wijk said the case is the first evidence that spider venom can destroy ear cartilage. Venom from recluse spiders — including the American brown recluse and its Mediterranean cousin, which rarely bite people — kills skin and fat with chemicals that break down proteins. Most bites occur when people roll over onto a spider while asleep, or when they put their foot into a shoe in which a recluse is found.
The spiders are "not that dangerous," van Wijk said. "I wouldn't take precautions, but if one develops a mysterious red-white-and-blue and swollen lesion in summer, in an endemic region, keep the brown recluse in mind," she added.