Case by Case

What to do in ten more worst-case scenarios, from getting bitten by a brown recluse to getting caught in a dust storm.

October 2004By Comments

Not everything’s big in Texas. Thank goodness for that, because when it comes to insects, spiders, and other creepy-crawlies, we already have more than enough trouble. Besides six- and eight-legged aggressors, the state’s residents face other dangers of the wee (not whee!) variety, such as those innocent-looking vines called poison ivy and teeny, generally ignorable particles of dirt that, when amassed in the zillions and moved at warp speed, become a suffocating dust storm. Below are ten examples of Texas terrors, from flora and fauna to illness and the elements, that may be minor in size but rank as major in impact.


As a constellation or a zodiac sign, Scorpio is perfectly fine, but in person its namesake instinctively produces a shudder. Perhaps that’s because scorpions are primitive killing machines; they have been around for some 400 million years, longer than dinosaurs. They are venomous at birth, congenitally cannibalistic, and fluorescent under black light. Texas has eighteen species of scorpion. The only one that lives all over the state is the striped bark scorpion, a two-and-a-half-inch-long variety with a sting that hurts but doesn’t kill; the only one believed capable of fatal envenomization is the Arizona bark scorpion, a pale-yellowish mini-monster that lives only in extreme West Texas. So far, though, Centruroides exilicauda is only a suspect and not a perpetrator; no known death in the state has ever been attributed to it.

If you are stung by a scorpion:

1) Apply heat packs or ice for pain relief, or take an analgesic (but do not give aspirin to children).

2) Get medical help immediately if the stinging sensation persists for more than a few minutes, or if you feel tingling in your extremities or have difficulty breathing. Small children should be taken to an emergency room regardless of their reaction.

Black Widow Spider

The Lucrezia Borgia of spiders is sleek, beautiful, and sometimes deadly. Unlike most arachnids, the black widow has a body that is not only hairless but also a glistening, solid black. Its legs are long and curved, and on its underside is a distinctive reddish or orange blotch, often—but not always—hourglass-shaped. (That’s the female; she’s the hostile one.)

The black widow injects a neurotoxin that can produce a systemic (body-wide) reaction. If you are bitten by a black widow, your symptoms may include abdominal pain, stiffness, tremors, sweating, headache, and nausea. In extreme cases, a victim may go into convulsions or pass out.

If—after sorting through old letters, ugly china, and moth-eaten duds in Aunt Mildred’s attic—you feel ill and find a red mark on your body that grows noticeably larger and sorer:

1) Call 911 or get medical help immediately. The Texas Poison Center Network is 1-800-POISON-1 (764-7661).

2) Wash the bite thoroughly with soap and water and apply an ice pack. You may take ibuprofen or acetaminophen for the pain.

3) Lie down, loosen your clothing, and tell yourself—aloud, if necessary—not to panic.

4) Take small children to an emergency room, regardless of their reaction.

Brown Recluse Spider

Also called a fiddleback, the brown recluse spider is, as its name suggests, a quiet and unsociable creature. In a dusty garage or dark closet it blends in much more easily than the glossy black widow; the brown recluse is a fairly forgettable little guy, light to golden or dark brown with three pairs of eyes and a roughly violin-shaped marking on its head. Because of the spider’s small size, a victim often barely notices the pinprick feel of its bite and disregards it until a lesion appears, with accompanying pain, hours later. The venom kills skin and tissue, leaving a wound that is a painful, but patriotic, red, white, and blue. The bite will grow deeper and slough off dead flesh. Accompanying symptoms include chills and fever, nausea, weakness, and a rash.

If you suspect you have been bitten by a brown recluse:

1) Call 911 and get medical help immediately. The Texas Poison Center Network is 1-800-POISON-1 (764-7661).

2) Wash the bite thoroughly with soap and water and apply an ice pack.

3) Lie down, loosen your clothing, and tell yourself—aloud, if necessary—not to panic.

4) Take small children to an emergency room, regardless of their reaction.


This isn’t the poisonous pet that Cleopatra supposedly used to kill herself. That asp was a snake, and this is merely the puss moth caterpillar, which can be yellow, gray, reddish brown, or a deceptively cheerful lime-green. “It’s fuzzy and it looks friendly, but the long hairlike spines are toxic,” says Dr. Patrick J. Crocker, chief of emergency medicine for Austin’s Brackenridge Hospital. “I’ve seen grown men bawling from the pain of an asp sting. Usually the only clue, besides the agony, is a big bright welt the exact length and shape of the caterpillar.”

If you suspect you’ve touched a stinging asp:

1) Apply ice, which will help reduce the pain.

2) Remove any spines still embedded in your skin by applying tape over the affected area and pulling it off.

3) Go to an emergency room if the pain doesn’t abate within half an hour. Dr. Crocker advises that severe stings sometimes require intravenous pain medication.


Forget ants; these tiny mites are the true bane of Texas picnickers. They actually attach themselves to unwary people, and inchworm their way along the skin until they reach a barrier—say, a waistband—at which point they start sucking juices out of their human host. At the same time, they excrete a fluid that causes intense, nonstop itching. (Doesn’t it make you a mite uncomfortable just reading that?) After a few days, they drop off and move on, but they leave behind red spots, often with a center blister, that may remain maddeningly itchy for as long as three weeks.

The best treatment for chiggers is preventive: using an insect repellent with DEET. But if you’re so excited about heading out to the outdoor concert that you forget to spray:

1) Use over-the-counter treatments such as hydrocortisone cream, calamine lotion, or colloidal oatmeal baths to soothe the itching.

2) See your doctor if the bites continue to spread or if they appear to be infected. He may suggest antihistamines or prescribe antibiotics.


Even the proudest Texan can’t be thrilled about the name of a certain tiny little resident vampire: the Lone Star tick. Both males and females like to gorge on blood, and the latter can produce—this is disgusting—up to eight thousand eggs. As with chiggers, a heavy-duty insect repellent is your best defense against these nasty suckers. You can also tuck your pants into your boots and wear long sleeves (unless you prefer to stay cool and fashionable instead).

If you spot a tick on your body:

1) Use tweezers to grasp its body and gently pull it off. Don’t worry if the pincers remain in your skin; the salivary organs are in the critter’s midsection. Do not use a hot match, nail polish, or petroleum jelly to remove the tick; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control nixes these old-fashioned methods. Flush the tick away.

2) Wash your hands. If you’re concerned about the slight possibility of Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever, drop the tick in a container of rubbing alcohol to kill it and take it to your doctor for identification. Only certain species of tick carry the germs that cause these illnesses.

3) Swab the bite with alcohol and apply a topical antiseptic.


Ask anyone who has ever held a backyard barbecue: These little bombers are happily active at dusk, and while you are still flipping patties, they are already chowing down—on you. “Skeeters” were merely an annoyance—or an excuse to slap your siblings and get away with it—until 1999, when entomological researchers announced that the insects were carrying a disease called West Nile virus, which they picked up from infected birds and, in some cases, passed on to people. Fortunately, the risk of contracting the illness is very slight.

If you want to avoid or treat mosquito bites:

1) Check your yard frequently and empty any standing water, where mosquitoes breed.

2) Use an insect repellent containing DEET before venturing outside.

3) See your medical provider as soon as possible if, within 3 to 14 days of suffering multiple bites, you develop a high fever, fatigue, achy muscles, and severe headaches.

Poison Ivy

Even an ocean of calamine lotion can’t do much for the misery caused by a brush with poison ivy. What gives you a bitch of an itch is something in the sap called urushiol, a remarkably stubborn chemical that can stay active on garden tools or hunting clothes for a year or more. People don’t even have to touch poison ivy to develop the rash, blisters, and itch; urushiol can rub off on them from, say, the coat of a dog or a football thrown into the bushes. And woe to the woman who, while traveling across Texas, stops by the roadside and uses Mother Nature’s restroom without being aware of exactly what plants are lurking beneath her. Thus, ladies in particular should try to learn to identify poison ivy—although, because it can grow as a vine, bush, or small plant, that’s easier said that done. Most of us, however, remember from childhood this helpful little verse: “Leaves of three—aaaiiieee!”

If you have come in contact with poison ivy:

1) Wash the affected area with rubbing alcohol to remove most of the urushiol. It’s sticky, and using water as a first-step rinse just spreads it around. Be sure to scrub your hands too; urushiol often hides under your fingernails.

2) Rinse with water—warm, if possible.

3) Wash with soap and water. Don’t use soap at first, as it too will just smear the urushiol across more and more of your skin.

4) Apply a hydrocortisone cream or a baking soda paste, or take an oatmeal bath for redness, swelling, blisters, and itching. If you scratch the blisters and break them, you may develop an infection, in which case you should see your doctor as soon as possible. You should also seek help if the rash is on your face or genitals, or if it covers 30 percent or more of your body.


What really stinks about skunks isn’t their tendency to let loose with a foul-smelling spray when threatened but their predisposition to contract, and pass on, rabies. According to the Department of State Health Services (formerly the Texas Department of Health), skunks are more likely to carry the disease than any other wild animal (runners-up: bats, foxes, and raccoons). Suspect rabies if you see a skunk or other non-domestic creature that seems suspiciously tame or friendly; that saunters around boldly in broad daylight; or that has difficulty walking, eating, or drinking (difficulty lapping up water gave rise to the old term “hydrophobia,” meaning “fear of water” in Latin). Sick pets may drool excessively and turn suddenly frantic or mean. Remember Old Yeller?

If you are bitten by an animal you think may be rabid:

1) Wash the bite immediately with soap and water. Rinse well. Wrap it gently in a clean cloth or bandage.

2) Go to an emergency room immediately. Describe the animal as thoroughly as possible to hospital personnel. They will take steps to have the animal tracked down and tested.

Dust Storm

The suffocating onslaughts of “Panhandle rain” in 1935 were what inspired Woody Guthrie, then a resident of Pampa, to write the now-classic folk song “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya.” Throughout the thirties, an extended drought combined with occasional severe winds resulted in billowing black clouds that mimicked thunderheads but were made up of stinging, choking dirt and sand. One dust storm in April of that year blanketed Amarillo for 84 hours straight.

If you find yourself admiring an eerily yellow sunset, but it’s only mid-afternoon:

1) Take shelter wherever you can: in a building or car or behind a fence or tree.

2) Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth, outlaw-style, if you are stranded outside. Wet it first, if possible. Emulate Dust Bowl denizens and put a layer of Vaseline (or a similar product) on your mouth and inside your nostrils.

3) Take out your contacts (if it’s possible to do so safely) and wear your glasses. Even sunglasses, though they will further cut down on visibility, will help guard your eyes from irritation. Sit down and tuck your head between your knees.

4) Wait for the storm to pass and then seek medical help if your eyes are inflamed or you feel you inhaled a significant amount of dirt.

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