Objective: To determine the spectrum of severity and early diagnostic predictors of redback spider bites (Latrodectus hasselti ), and to examine the effect of intramuscular redback antivenom.
Design and setting: Prospective cohort study of calls to New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australian poisons information centres and presentations to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Royal Darwin Hospital emergency departments.
Patients: 68 people with definite redback spider bites in which the spider was immediately collected and expertly identified (1 February 1999 to 30 April 2002).
Interventions: Intramuscular redback spider antivenom in a smaller cohort of hospitalised patients.
Main outcome measures: Pain severity and duration, local effects and systemic envenomation (effects, prevalence, and persistence > 24 hours).
Results: The median duration of effects was 48 hours (interquartile range, 24-96 hours). Pain occurred after all bites and was severe in 42 (62%). Forty-five patients (66%) had pain lasting longer than 24 hours, and 22 (32%) were unable to sleep because of pain. Systemic effects occurred in 24 (35%). Increasing pain over one hour occurred in 37 cases (54%), and local/regional diaphoresis in 23 (34%); both these features were highly predictive of L. hasselti bites compared with bites of other spiders. One of six patients treated with intramuscular antivenom (17%) had no pain at 24 hours, compared with two of 17 untreated patients (12%) (difference, 5%; 95% CI, -36% to +64%; P = 0.95). There was no difference in duration of systemic effects with antivenom administration.
Conclusions: Most redback spider bites cause severe and persistent effects. Intramuscular antivenom appears to be less effective than previously thought and its use by this route needs review.