Creepy Crawly Questions for Fall


Winter is coming… or at least fall. That means snakes, spiders, bees, and other insects are preparing for the changes in the season. Here's what to know about their behaviors if you see them outside or indoors. 

McKay-Dee Hospital emergency physician Heather L. Heileson, MD, knows a thing or two about snakebites and insects. The Animal Planet series, Venom ER, was filmed where she completed her residency near Los Angeles and she even appeared in several episodes. Here’s her answers to some of our most common creepy crawly questions. 

How can you tell if a snake is venomous?

Of the 31 snake species in Utah, seven are venomous. Because the possibility of encountering a venomous snake in Utah is high, it's important to recognize them. The ones to watch out for typically have a broad triangular head and slit-like pupils, but it’s not recommended to get close enough to see their pupil shape. Stay away from snakes that make a rattling sound, although not all rattlesnakes or venomous snakes have a rattle on their tail.  

“Snakes are cold-blooded so in the autumn when temperatures dip nightly, snakes have to warm up in the mornings so they ‘sun themselves’ on rocks or in the middle of trails,” Dr. Heileson says. “If you see a snake leave it alone. Where I did my residency we’d see bites from people picking up the snake and the snake biting in self-defense. In Utah people seem to be more accustomed to living among them. Most of the bites here are because hikers or campers accidentally disrupt a snake’s habitat and startle them.”

If you get a snakebite, go to the emergency room to be evaluated. You might have no symptoms at first, but depending on the severity of the bite you will most likely develop nausea, abdominal cramping, dizziness, rapid heart rate, bleeding/bruising, difficulty breathing, and weakness, so it’s better to be safe and get medical attention immediately. Your doctor will want a description and perhaps a photo of the snake from a distance (but please don’t bring the dead snake in to your doctor).

Which spiders should you watch out for?

“From late summer to the first freeze, spiders lay their eggs, and we often see them in our houses more this time of year as it gets cold,” says Dr. Heileson. “If I see a spider in my yard, I know it’s there to eat bugs, but if I see a spider in my house, I worry that it’s there to lay eggs that will hatch in the spring.”

A wolf spider is commonly seen indoors this time of year and will bite freely if provoked, but the bite heals quickly, unlike some other spider bites. A hobo spider bite can blister and cause skin damage. A black widow bite will be very painful immediately and can cause severe muscle spasms near the site due to the venom. Severe abdominal pain, headache, sweating and vomiting are common symptoms of a black widow bite.  

One spider myth is that the brown recluse spider lives in Utah, but this is not true. “They don’t live here,” says Dr. Heileson. “But we do have hobo spiders, which look similar.”

The other spiders that you see around your house may cause pain and irritation if they bite you, but in general, these bites are not problematic unless they get secondarily infected after scratching them. 

If you get a spider bite, here’s what to do: Wash the bite area with soap and water and apply ice to the area. Hydrocortisone cream can be applied to reduce inflammation. Try not to scratch the area as this can cause an open sore that can get infected. If you have difficulty breathing, lightheadedness, or any other concerning symptoms, go to the emergency room for evaluation.  

Why do some people have severe reactions to bee stings, and how can you avoid getting stung?

“Bees and wasps are very active in the fall,” Dr. Heileson says. “They’re gathering food and preparing for winter. One tip to avoid being stung when eating outside is to keep food tightly covered. Don’t drink cans of pop at outdoor parties, as yellow jackets will crawl inside for a drink and will sting when they feel trapped. Another idea I’ve heard is to put honey in a bowl on the edge of a table far away from you when picnicking in order to keep flying insects away from you.”

If you do get stung, bee stings can elicit different responses in the body: mild, moderate and severe. In a mild case, remove the stinger, wash the area with soap and water, put ice on it, and don’t scratch as scratching will trigger a more robust inflammatory response. “A tip to remove the stinger is putting tape on it and pulling it off quickly, or scraping it off with a credit card at an opposite direction of the stinger entrance,” Dr. Heileson says.

In most cases bee stings will be mild, but if you’ve had a severe reaction in the past, get medical help. In some people, the body has an immune response memory that will produce an exaggerated reaction when they’re stung again. If you’ve had a significant reaction to a sting before, this means the next one can be worse and you should see a doctor immediately. In a severe reaction, there can be vomiting, low blood pressure, fast heart rate, sweating, lethargy, and difficulty breathing. An EpiPen can be used for a severe allergic reaction until you get medical attention. While there is no antivenin for bee stings, there are interventions that your medical provider can use that will lessen the immune response and prevent a life-threatening situation.