An eight-legged invasion is giving some Austrians the creeps. The venomous yellow sack spider, whose painful bite can cause headache and nausea, has become the talk of the town since several people were bitten earlier this summer.
Reports of spider sightings have dominated local media, triggering hundreds of calls to a Vienna poison hotline and prompting the government to issue a plea for calm.
"The bites of a yellow sack spider are indeed painful but not deadly," Health Minister Maria Rauch-Kallat said in a statement. "If you are bitten, please don't panic and in case of discomfort immediately contact a doctor."
Underscoring the hysteria, 190 people who feared they might have been bitten went Wednesday to the main hospital in the northwestern city of Linz. Only eight of them turned out to have possible symptoms, doctors told Austrian state broadcaster ORF.
Eva Reiner, a Vienna business consultant, fished a dead yellow sack spider out of her pool this week — and has not gone swimming since. "It wasn't even alive, and it still looked evil to me," she said.
But experts are urging people to keep things in perspective.
The yellow and brown striped critter, whose Latin name is Cheiracanthium Punctorium and is known in German as a "Dornfingerspinne," is one of 1,000 similar species found in Austria and neighboring countries including Germany, Italy and Switzerland, said Christian Komposch of an animal ecology institute in the southern city of Graz.
There are sightings every year, said Komposch, who blames the media for spreading misleading information and fanning the frenzy.
Dr. Christian Baldinger, a physician in the province of Upper Austria, said he was bitten last week while working in his garden.
"It was like a stinging nettle, but not really painful," said Baldinger, 53. Within two days, the wound was red and infected, and a specialist told him the symptoms could take eight to 10 weeks to subside.
Komposch advises people who think they may have been bitten to treat the wound with hot water. "The most important thing is: Don't panic!" he said.
For the not-so-faint at heart, the spider could bring in some cash.
Collectors are willing to fork over more than $255 for a single specimen, according to Kurier, an Austrian daily.
But some people, such as 26-year-old bank employee Robert Schneider, do not know what all the fuss is about.
"I think everyone is exaggerating," he said. "I'm not sure I would recognize a yellow sack spider if I saw one."