Snakebite

OVERVIEW - Bites from venomous snakes in the United States are very rare. There are about 8000 such occurrences each year. A large number of those occur to those that work with snakes on a daily basis, such as zoo keepers, research workers and hobbyists who choose to keep venomous snakes at home. Another large portion of those bitten were trying to catch, tease, or kill a snake in the wild. Most other bites occur when someone steps on a snake and the snake bites in its own defense. Death occurs in less than 1% of the snakebites in this country, about 10 to 15 per year. One third of the rattlesnake bites are "dry" bites, in which no venom is injected.

PREVENTION - This describes the many way of avoiding the bite of a dangerous snake. Most of us will never come across a rattlesnake in the wild. However, there are certain people that tend to see them now and then. This could include telephone company field workers, ranchers, hunters, hikers, campers and others. These kinds of people usually plan snakebite prevention into their daily lives. (Keep in mind that most snakes are crepuscular and nocturnal and are not out during our active hours.)

Below are several guidelines for avoiding snakebites.

  1. Wear appropriate footwear such as boots, chaps or high-top hiking shoes.
  2. Step up onto logs or rocks rather than over them.
  3. Don't place your hands on unseen ledges or into animal holes.
  4. Don't turn rocks or boards over with bare hands. Use a tool.
  5. Don't try to kill, catch or molest a venomous snake. Leave them alone.
  6. Don't hike by yourself.
  7. Learn what dangerous snakes in your area look like. Get a book.
  8. Watch where you are walking.

FIRST AID - This describes measures taken in the field to minimize the effects of the bite of a venomous snake. Very few snakebite kits on the market offer much in the way of first aid. A kit with a strong suction device has some merit in the field. Many hikers and campers carry these devices with them. No snakebite first aid kit provides a cure. Treatment at a hospital should always be sought.

Below is a list of do's and don'ts when dealing with snakebite first aid.

  1. Remain calm and inactive.
  2. Don't make incisions over the snakebite.
  3. Don't constrict the flow of blood.
  4. Don't immerse a limb in ice water.
  5. Use suction device or mouth to extract some venom. If performed within the first couple of minutes, this may help reduce the effects of the bite. This procedure should not be performed by someone with ulcers of the mouth or stomach.
  6. Have another individual drive to medical care for treatment.
  7. If you spend a lot of time in "snake country", locate a physician with snakebite treatment before hand, just in case.

TREATMENT - Steps taken at a hospital or other medical facility to counter the effects of snake venom is called treatment. The most common treatment includes the injection of an antivenin (or antivenom). Injecting small amounts of venom into a horse makes antivenin. The horse's immune system provides a defense against the venom. The horse's blood serum is then used in antivenin and given to human bite victims to counteract the effects of the bite. Only qualified medical personnel should administer antivenin. There are often side effects to be considered.

Treatment may also involve care given to relieve swelling, tetanus or local tissue damage. North American pit viper venom (rattlesnake, water moccasin, copperhead) is primarily hemotoxic, acting to destroy blood and muscle tissue.

Copyright © 1991 by American International Rattlesnake Museum

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