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Snakebite is an oft discussed issue among outdoors folks. My guess is that about eight out of ten people are afraid of all snakes, “the only good snake is a dead snake.” It is certainly ok to be afraid of them, especially if you cannot differentiate poisonous snakes from non-poisonous ones.
With the recent flooding in some Delta areas, the Lake Washington Snake Rodeo, and numerous other summertime outdoor activities, I want to update you with some recent statistics and treatment recommendations for snakebites. Most snakebites occur between April and October. Recent estimates in emergency medicine literature and the CDC (Center for Disease Control) suggest that of approximately 45,000 snakebites per year in the United States, about 8,000 are from poisonous snakes, and these account for fewer than 10 deaths per year. 99% of poisonous bites are from pit vipers, i.e., rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins, and 1% from the much less common coastal coral snake. Also, approximately 30-40% of poisonous bites are “dry bites,” as the snake bites in self-defense and usually does not inject venom.
Even if you do not like snakes, you should at least be able to recognize whether a snake has pit viper characteristics, which include a triangular head, heat-sensor “pits” under the eyes, and elliptical pupils. These snakes will usually have two fangs, but occasionally a snakebite victim may have only one puncture wound from a glancing blow or from a snake in which a fang is missing. This is helpful information to the treating doctor in case you get bitten. A nonpoisonous snakebite may display teeth marks, maybe not much more than a superficial abrasion or scratch but will not puncture deeply.
So what do you do if you are bitten by a snake? Non-poisonous bites are usually associated with minimal or no pain. They are simply treated as any other superficial wound and cleaned with an antiseptic solution and antibacterial ointment application, as well as tetanus shot update.
Poisonous bites, however, are potentially very serious, even though most are not lethal. CDC says 10-44% of rattlesnake bites, though usually non-lethal, may lead to disability through soft tissue loss or amputation of body parts. The poison in a snake’s venom can cause significant local tissue destruction, and in more serious bites can cause internal bleeding, shock, and death. It is important that any poisonous snakebite be immediately evaluated by a doctor in an emergency room. In the field the victim should have the bitten arm or leg splinted to immobilize it, and he/she should be kept calm during the trip to the ER. Do not use a tourniquet as this can cause more damage than the bite itself from cutting off the blood supply to the extremity over long periods of time. A light, constricting rubber band is ok as long a pulse is felt in the wrist or foot below the band. NEVER cut and suck the bite site as old literature might suggest, as it can worsen the tissue destruction involved with the bite. Carry a snake bite kit found in most sporting goods stores and use the suction cups to apply negative pressure at the bite site to help prevent the spread of the venom. Finally, try to identify the snake. If you kill it, DO NOT handle it as dead snakes can still bite from reflexes. If you cannot physically retrieve or transport the snake, take its picture with your cell phone.
In the ER the doctor will access the victim for the amount of pain, swelling, discoloration at the bite site, as well as for any signs that the poison is spreading throughout the body. Dry bites and minor bites with minimal swelling will require the above mentioned treatment and observation for several hours before discharge home. More serious bites will be treated with antivenin. A new antivenin has been developed from sheep serum to replace the old horse serum antivenin which usually made the recovering victim sick with a delayed allergic reaction. This can also occur with the sheep serum derivative, but is usually less severe. A patient with signs of shock will be stabilized and transferred to a trauma center.
Coral snakes do not have long fangs and inject their venom by chewing it into its victim. This snake is found in Mississippi only in the coastal counties. The venom is a neurotoxin meaning it kills by attacking the nervous system of its victims. A special antivenin had been developed for its bite, but has been discontinued due to the expense of producing it and the relatively few bite encounters from this snake. Remember the pneumonic, “red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack,” as this relatively rare snake can be confused with the more common non-poisonous Scarlet king snake with similar color bands.
I’ve had the opportunity to care for several snakebite victims over the years. Interestingly most have not required antivenin treatment, and thankfully, none have died.
A couple of humorous stories come to mind. One gentleman arrived in our ER in a state of high anxiety from his nonpoisonous bite from a small garter snake. He repeated over and over that he was going to die, and nothing we could say or do would convince him otherwise. He asked for a pen and piece of paper and proceeded to write his “last will and testament” on it, and handed it to his nurse, instructing her to give it to his wife when he died. We treated his minor bite and discharged him home, with him still adamant he was about to die. I suspect that more people probably die from snake “fright” than snake “bite.”
Another encounter involved a young man who was preparing to host a 4th of July party. He had already begun to party with “only a couple of beers” when he noticed a small copperhead in his driveway. It bit him on a finger when he picked it up to relocate it from the party area. He told us, “I was afraid someone might hurt the little fella!” He needed no antivenin and was discharged with a diagnosis of “alcohol induced snakebite!”
Another bite victim was a man training his black lab to retrieve ducks in the summer using a training dummy. His dog suddenly seemed to be hung in an underwater brush top, and he paddled over to it to free him. As he reached under the lab to lift him into the boat, he felt a sharp pain in his hand. Inspection showed he had two puncture wounds close together and realized he had been bitten by an unseen cottonmouth, which can definitely bite underwater, in case you were wondering. This victim spent several hours of observation in our ER showing only mild swelling in his hand., required no antivenin, and was discharged home.
Remember to always beware of snakes, even in cool weather. While turkey hunting, I have encountered a timber rattlesnake on a cool morning in south Mississippi, a six-foot Eastern Diamondback rattler in south Florida and a similar sized Western Diamondback rattler in south Texas. And I once dispatched a cottonmouth moccasin in twenty-degree weather in January in Issaquena county on a rabbit hunt.
An excellent full color snake identification app to have on your cell phone was created by herpetologist and Professor Emeritus of Ecology at the University of Georgia, Whit Gibbons. Snakes of the Southeast is a wonderful ID app to have in the woods.
So, watch your step and where you put your hand when on your outdoor adventures. Be Safe!
By Bobby Dale, January 26, 2021
Snakebite originally appeared in Delta Wildlife Magazine
This has been a year. I can’t think of a single person who hasn’t been affected in some way by all the curveballs that 2020 has thrown. In June, we lost one of our best buddies of all time. Li’l Guy as he was known, had the best outlook – he was always happy to see you, always had LOTS to say, and was always fearless in his pursuit of life.
My parents adopted Li’l Guy from the animal shelter in Tupelo, MS when he was a few years old. Someone found him on the side of the road and brought him in, where it was discovered that he was paralyzed from the waist down. His story is wonderfully told in the book From Rags to Wags that was published in 2018.
Although he had paraplegia, “LG” as I called him, had magic legs in the form of a bright red cart, his very own “race car hot wheels!” He was so fast that he could out run ALL the other dogs and even lots of people. His upper body strength was LEGIT. He could do pretty much anything that abled dogs could do, and the things he couldn’t physically do, he was masterful at coming up with a work around.
One of my favorite memories of LG was during a visit home one summer a few months after he became part of the family. I had let all the dogs – all being my parents’ 5 (yes 5 dogs) + my dog outside into the back yard. I smiled seeing LG bound down the stairs in his little red “race car.” I went back inside to catch up on work stuff.
A little while later I heard LG barking. It was strange that he was the only one barking because with that crew when one started, they would all chime in, swelling to a full barking chorus. I was like uh-oh something’s up. So I went to investigate. I walked the yard and didn’t find anyone or anything out of place. All the other dogs were lying around napping and snoring and completely unaffected. I told LG that there was nothing going on that he needed to be barking about, and I went back inside. The barking continued.
About an hour later my mom got home, and I told her about LG’s incessant barking. She asked if he was in the yard or on the porch, and I replied that he was in the yard. She said that’s what he does when he needs to go up the stairs. Then it dawned on me how truly brilliant LG was – he could easily get down stairs but needed a “boost” to go up, so he used his masterful barking skills to communicate his needs.
The same scenario happened the next day. But this time I knew what to do! So when I heard LG barking (and no one else was) I went down the porch stairs and asked him if he needed a boost. He nodded by jumping on his front legs so I lifted the back end of his race car, and he bounded up the stairs, turned around and gave me a “thanks friend” look and then found his nap spot next to his “brothers and sisters”. It was a great moment, and I marveled at how special he was. From then on, when LG barked and there wasn’t a clear reason why, I looked for his cue as to how I could assist.
Earlier this year my parents had said that LG showed signs of slowing down and had developed advanced arthritis in his front legs. He was still first in line to eat and would never miss treat time, and while his spirit was still as chipper and as sweet as ever you could catch glimpses of pain in his eyes.
In April, my husband, my dog-child, and I made an emergency trip to Tupelo despite the COVID outbreak. My dad had a stroke on Easter, and there was no keeping us away from being there to help out while he recovered in the hospital. Remember, they have 5 dogs – AND a cat! It’s been said a hundred times, and I echo, that one of the myriad cruelties of this virus is not being able to see your loved ones while hospitalized, COVID diagnosis or not.
As with anything in life, time is not guaranteed. When we were there over the spring, I knew that LG had more time behind him than ahead of him. A few weeks after we returned home to Florida, we got the call that LG had crossed the rainbow bridge.
We think that Li’l Guy was about 11 years old. In the nine of those years that he was part of our family I learned a lot. I learned that it is disrespectful to feel sorry for people and animals who are disabled. They have as much, if not more, to give than any able-bodied person or animal. I learned that you have to advocate for yourself. We need to be better about speaking up for ourselves and truly listening to what each other has to say. I was reminded that life is so much better when we can move forward together, and to always be kind and to be willing to help someone else get what they need, not because they are helpless, but because sometimes all you need is a “Li’l” boost to get ahead.
By Mary-Margaret Dale. November 15, 2020