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Unable to find a clean housecoat, a 91-year-old Tennessee woman dons an old garment that has been hanging in her closet undisturbed for almost a year. Then she goes about her daily routine.

Eight hours later she notices a small, white blister under her left arm. She thinks nothing of it. But that night she is restless -- can’t sleep. The next morning, her body is racked with fever, chills and nausea. Her joints ache. And now her entire armpit is inflamed, the skin hard to the touch. In the center is a hole that looks, for all the world, like a miniature volcano.

She is not the first to be bitten by a brown recluse spider, and certainly will not be the last. Luckily, considering her age, she survives.

Not aggressive by nature, the brown recluse spider normally bites only when direct contact is made with the skin, but warm weather makes them more active. Fatalities are rare. However, the bite causes a severe allergic reaction, most serious when young children or the elderly are involved. Curious children are the most frequent victims.

The brown recluse spider is 1/4 to 1/2 inch long, grayish to dark brown, with a leg span the size of a half dollar. Its most distinguishing mark is a violin shape on its back. Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri are states best known for their populations of brown recluse spiders. However, brown recluse spiders are found in all 50 states, especially in the southeast.

Outdoors, brown recluse spiders can often be discovered under rocks and debris, or in wood piles. In the home their most common hiding places are in bathrooms, attics, cellars, and storage areas. The hands, underarms, abdomen and ankles are the places most frequently bitten.

Reaction to a bite depends on the amount of venom injected. For some, the bite may not be initially felt and symptoms may go unnoticed for two to eight hours. Other victims may suffer a stinging sensation, followed by intense pain. A very severe bite results in the killing of surrounding tissue and could require surgery.

William F. Lyon of Ohio State University recommends that a strong antiseptic be applied to the site to prevent infection and ice packs applied to reduce swelling. And above all, call a doctor.

Lyon also recommends the following steps be taken to avoid being bitten.

-- Shake out clothing before dressing, especially garments that have been left unused for a while. This especially applies to shoes and gloves.

-- Get rid of trash, old boxes, piles of lumber, old clothing and other unwanted items. Clean up basements, closets and other storage areas.

-- Clean the house regularly -- especially around undisturbed areas -- drapes and behind furniture. Vacuum corners. Clean and dust windowsills.

-- Install screens in door and caulk cracks and crevices to prevent entry.

The best protection against bites of the brown recluse, of course, is simple prevention.