Do people really swallow spiders in their sleep?

staged image of woman in bright red lipstick looking scared as a large black spider descends from the ceiling. The room is blue and she has brown eyes and hair

Assuming you don’t gulp one down one on purpose, is it likely you can swallow a spider unintentionally in your sleep?

“There was an old lady who swallowed a spider that wriggled, and jiggled and tickled inside her…”

According to the rhyme and song, the unfortunate woman swallowed the arachnid to catch a fly she had previously eaten – followed by a number of other creatures in an attempt to solve the original issue.

But… let’s concentrate on the spider.

Assuming you don’t gulp one down on purpose, is it likely you can swallow a spider unintentionally in your sleep?

Chris Cowsley, a Hertfordshire postal worker, believes he recently did just that.

He was taken to hospital last month after waking up recently choking in the early hours.

Chris Cowsley

Chris Cowsley was told it was likely he had swallowed a spider in his sleep

Unable to breathe – and after calling 999 – he said an ambulance paramedic told him it seemed likely his uvula – the fleshy hanging ball at the back of the throat – had been bitten by a spider.

His throat swelled up and his breathing was seriously impaired.

Mr Cowsley says he thought he “was going to die”.

The hospital said it was not sure what had caused Mr Cowsley’s breathing problems – though a specialist, Mr Cowsley says, did suggest the paramedic’s spider bite theory might have merit.

In defence of those with eight legs

House spider

House spider

The British Arachnological Society says as natural pest controllers, spiders are “second to none”.

“They are predators and their main prey are insects, many of which eat our crops and pester our livestock,” its website suggests.

A study by the University of Basel in Switzerland in 2017 found spiders have an enormous ecological impact as natural enemies of insects.

The report states: “With more than 45,000 species and a population density of up to 1,000 individuals per square metre, spiders are one of the world’s most species-rich and widespread groups of predators.”

They calculated that “the global spider population (with a weight of around 25 million tons) wipes out an estimated 400-800 million tons of prey every year”.

Spider experts, however, are less convinced that a spider was the culprit for Mr Cowsley’s breathing problem.

Dr Matt Wilkinson, from Cambridge University’s department of zoology, says: “There’s a myth that you swallow about eight spiders a year in your sleep.

“It is a myth – though one that many people accept as reality.”

It is unclear where the spider-swallowing story originated, but the myth is so embedded it has morphed into the stuff of urban legend, Dr Wilkinson says.

“It’s really curious that this was the gut instinct reaction [of those treating Mr Cowsley,” he says.

Dr Wilkinson and others are highly dubious that a spider bite led to Mr Cowsley’s unfortunate incident.

Dr Michel Dugon

The false widow is one of the very few spiders in the UK which can bite humans

“Very few spiders in Britain can bite you and the only possible one is the false widow – it’s pretty big and you’d wake up if that was in your throat,” Dr Wilkinson says.

“It’s not going to crawl in there – there’s air going in and out and it’s just not going in there.”

Experts agree that most people would wake up if a spider was on their face.

“You’d know about it long before it bit you,” Dr Wilkinson said.

He was aware that medical staff had suggested a spider bite may have caused Mr Cowsley’s breathing difficulties, but said: “I’d need some pretty hefty evidence.

“Show me the evidence – the remains of the spider – show me the bite.

“I just cannot imagine a spider did this.”

Dr Geoff Oxford, honorary secretary of the British Arachnological Society, agreed that the story of swallowing eight spiders a year while sleeping was “a myth”.

“If someone’s sleeping, they’re breathing hot air in and out,” he said.

“Why on earth would a spider go in? They just don’t do that.”

The NHS says although spider bites in the UK are uncommon, some can leave people feeling sick, sweating or dizzy.

They can also become infected and, in rare cases, causes a severe allergic reaction. The NHS recommends seeking medical immediately if people suffer “any severe or worrying symptoms after a spider bite”.

As for Mr Cowsley, his apparent run-in with his accidental arachnid meal has left him none-the-worse health-wise.

Nor has he become an overnight arachnophobe.

However, one of the first things he did after his hospital visit was to buy a set of insect repellents, because, he says, ” I’m not having that anymore”.

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