By Scott Matthew Quint

One of the few wildlife dangers we face here in the coastal plains is a venomous snake bite. Although a snake bite is considered to be a rarity, venomous or otherwise, peolpe seem to spend a great amount of energy worrying about it. Hikers, hunters, anglers and others who spend a majority of their time outdoors are concerned with running into a venomous snake while participating in their activities. Retail stores that serve the "outdoor folk" carry various products that address this concern. From snake repellants and protective clothing to snake bite first aid kits, they've got it all. But knowledge of venomous snakes, which you can find just about any where these days from books to web sites, is always a better way to protect yourself.
A venomous snake bite is exremely rare. So rare in fact, that you are more likely to be struck by lighting than to be bitten by a venomous snake. Fact is, almost every venomous snake bite recorded to date, has been from an encounter that was deliberately initiated by a human. Meaning, snakes DO NOT seek us out to intentionally bite us. It it also true however, that some bites do occur as the result of a "chance" or "surprise" encounter with a venomous snake. To better protect yourself from one of these types of encounters with a venomous snake read the information below to make your outdoor activities a little more relaxing.

1: Avoid snakes. This is the easiest remedy. Snakes are not interested in people and will avoid an encounter if at all possible.  Should an encounter occur, the snake will often threaten and warn before ever actually biting. Biting is a really bad defensive strategy for a small animal because the animal has to get too close and expose itself to injury before it can  actually bite. So the snakes are looking out for you and if you look out for the snake, the threat is significantly reduced. Looking out for the snake is not really a difficult matter either. The snake will never aggresively come after you, so all you have to do is be careful about where you put your feet and hands when in snake habitat (which can be anywhere in their range). Should you see a snake, keep away from it, regardless of whether it is  venomous, unless you really know what you are doing. After snake keepers, most snake bites occur when the person approaches the snake to destroy it.

2: Wear protective clothing. If you are an avid outdoors enthusiast, you may encounter venomous snakes by chance. Depending on which activities you participate in, this may be inevitable. However, this should be of little concern. Snakes encountered in the field will attempt to avoid you and will threaten before resorting to biting. A bite will most likely be the result of surprise physical contact; that is, the snake gets stepped on, grabbed accidentally or nudged in some way. In these cases, some sort of protective clothing can help quite a bit. The most common situation would be stepping on a snake. In this case thick shoes or boots will stop most bites. Most of the venomous snakes in the Coastal Plains are small or have small fangs. The noteable exceptions are Timber and Diamondback Rattlesnakes. The rest, Pygmy Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, Cottonmouths and Coral Snakes all have very small fangs and their bite can easily be thwarted. The two big Rattlesnakes can bite above the protective shoes, but their size makes them easier to spot also. Aside from conventional shoes there are Snake Boots, which go up to the knee and Snake Chaps, which can cover the whole leg. These will work to thwart just about any potential bite, but they are heavy and uncomfortable, so you will have to choose.

3: So, in this case, you've been bitten by a venomous snake. In this circumstance, there is a clear prescribed set of steps to follow, and a clear list of actions to take and to NOT take. These are enumerated below:

DOs:

  1. DO...Identify the snake if possible. If it is venomous and it is anything except the Coral Snake, the same antivenin will be used, but local effects of the bite can vary with species. Moccasins have locally destructive bites while copperheads have more mild effects. Neither are usually fatal, but  large Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake can be both destructive and fatal.
  2. DO...Stay calm (both the bite victim and the aid renderer) and treat for shock. Shock kills faster than most injuries, so apply apropriate first aid for shock. Stay Calm, loosen clothing, elevate the feet, lie down, continually engage in conversation.
  3. DO...Go to the hospital. Antivenin is the only proven remedy for a bite. Other first aid measures can be used to help calm the bite victim, but are of little additional value. Snake venom can take days to kill a reasonably sized human, but can cause severe local damage quickly so it is best to get medical attention quickly. Also, an allergic reaction can be deadly, so the faster the victim is under competent medical care the better. People who go out of their way to find snakes or are otherwise under increased risk should carry an EpiPen. This can counter any allergic reaction quickly and save your life.

DON'Ts:

  • DON'T...panic. Shock kills more people than snakes, and more people die of non-venomous bites than from venomous bites.
  • DON'T...apply a tourniquette. Snake venom is a digestive aid. Applying a tourniquette reduces the mass of the affected area and can lead to greater local damage.
  • DON'T...use ice. Ice can reduce the obvious effects of the bite and make it difficult for the doctor to assess the severity.
  • DON'T...drink alcohol. Alcohol thins the blood and wekens the immune system.
  • DON'T...apply electric current to the bite. This is the opposite of help.
  • DON'T...cut the bite area. Apply suction if you like, but cutting simply adds a bleeding injury to the snake bite. This is also the opposite of help. Tissue is porous like a sponge. Would cutting a sponge make it easier to suck fluid out of it?
  • DON'T...attempt to capture or kill the snake. This can lead to being bitten again.
  • DON'T...bring a snake to the emergency room. This will lead to more panic and excitement.

     Commercial snake-bite first aid tools are available but there is no evidence to date that they significantly affect the bite. However, they are also usually harmless and can aid in calming the victim, so feel free to use them.

     Venomous reptile keepers sometime like to have antivenin on-hand. This is a good idea, especially for exotic species, however, it can be expensive and has a relatively short shelf life. It is probably just as good to have a list of locations that store antivenin, like zoos or antivenin banks.


Fangs of the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. Note the Venom gathered at the tips.
Photo by W.T.Helfrich

     A bite from a pit-viper (ie., rattlesnake, copperhead, or cottonmouth), is immediately painful. The bite victim can expect a severe burning sensation along with throbing pain. Swelling and discoloration around the bite area will be quickly evident as well. This means that if you have been envenomated by one of these snakes, it will be obvious. Non-venomous bites do little more than bleed slightly and are usually painless. There will be little wondering whether the bite was venomous or not, so get to the hospital and don't spend too much time identifying the snake. Coral Snake bites are different. The bite may cause no pain whatsoever and cause no discoloration except locally. the effects of pit-vipers will be immediate, while a coral snake bite may take hours or days to manifest symptoms. Since coral snakes deliver little venom in a bite, they are seldom fatal, but because the venom is so toxic, it is unwise to let it go untreated. Coral snakes, however, are one of the least likely snakes to bite, even amongst non-venomous snakes.

   An actual venomous snake-bite can be a dangerous and traumatic experience, so haveing a plan for this possibility is advantageous. That being said, caution is good, paranoia or irrational terror is not. Snake bite is rare, fatalities from snake bite are even rarer and the observant and prepared person has little to fear.

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