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August 27th, 2012
10:52 AM ET

Summer snakebite safety

For many people, the warm weather of summer means being outdoors and enjoying hiking, camping, and other outside activities. That also means sharing time with critters such as mosquitoes, spiders and snakes.

More than 6,000 poisonous snake bites occur each year in the United States, but fewer than 12 of those bites result in death from snake venom poisoning, according to articles in The American Family Physician.

“Snake bites are unfortunately a common event in Georgia and the Southeast. In 2011, the poison center was contacted about 379 snake bites to people, and there were probably many more that didn’t get called in,” says Dr. Robert Geller, medical director of the Georgia Poison Control Center at Emory University. Geller says that’s a typical number of snake bites compared to previous years.

If you are bitten by a poisonous snake, it's important to take the right action afterward.

“The first thing to do is to make sure you don’t get bitten again," says Geller, who explains that if you’re in a remote area and get bitten on the leg, you’re going to need to use your leg to get to your car and get treatment. The goal, however, is to use it as little as possible. If you’re at home, the best action is to stay where you are and call for help.

That’s what Rick Sanders of Sandy Springs, Georgia, did when he was bitten by a Copperhead snake. He was planning on spending a sunny day working in his yard, which is full of ivy, bushes and large trees.

“I stepped and immediately felt this incredible pain in my ankle,” he explained “I had no idea what it was because I didn’t see anything but when I looked down I saw a snake, about two feet down, just looking at me, and I just said ‘Oh, my God, I’ve been bitten by a snake, what do I do?’”

Amazingly, Sanders went inside, called to his son for help, and logged onto his laptop. He says he called up search engine images of Copperhead snakes, and confirmed what had bitten him.

“My gut was to call 911,” Sanders recalled, “and they immediately put me over to poison control. They were very calm and reassuring, asked me where I was located, and he told me nobody had died from a Copperhead bite.” Sanders said he later learned that wasn’t entirely true, but at the time it was reassuring.

When Sanders arrived at the emergency room, Georgia Poison Control had already warned the hospital that a snake bite victim was in transit. Sanders says that, despite a full waiting room, he was immediately taken to a treatment room.

“Initially, they were worried about swelling, so they observe you in the ER for a while… your blood pressure plummets - they had to revive me. They measured the distance between the fangs – it was a fairly large snake,” he explained.

There are two kinds of poisonous snakes found in the United States. Snakes in the pit viper family, whose fangs fold up against the roof of their mouth, include rattlesnakes, Copperheads and Cottonmouth snakes. The other family of venomous snake is the “elapidae” or fixed-fang snakes, which include coral snakes, cobras and kraits. The American Family Physician says 95% of venomous snake bites are from pit viper snakes, with rattlesnake bites producing the most fatalities due to their widespread distribution and potent venom.

Pit vipers’ venom causes damage to tissue and blood, while fixed-fang snake bites damage nerve tissue. Symptoms of pit viper toxin include intense pain, swelling, bleeding disorders, confusion, and rapid pulse. If untreated, kidney failure can occur.

While Sanders experienced a drop in his blood pressure, that is a less common symptom, according to American Family Physician articles. Fixed-fang snake toxins can produce numbness instead of pain and produce paralysis, slowed breathing, and weakness.

The typical treatment for venomous snake bites is cleaning the wound, administering IV fluids and taking blood samples to monitor blood clotting factors. While we’ve all seen movie scenes where someone makes cuts near the snake bite, administers a tourniquet, and sucks out the venom, Geller says those methods are not recommended and generally cause more damage.

Antivenin, which counteracts the snake venom, is costly and not always required. Sanders was monitored in the hospital for four to five hours before his treatment team began administering antivenin.

“It’s kind of a balance,” explained Sanders, “the treatment (which was covered by health insurance) was very costly – the antivenin is very expensive … you have to weigh the risks versus the benefits.” Sanders says his hospital bill, which included two days of care and multiple vials of antivenin, cost several tens of thousands of dollars.

Geller also says that drought conditions have made Copperhead snake bites more potent, which may have affected the venom of Sanders' snake.

So what can you do to avoid snake bites? If you’re in wilderness areas, wear boots that cover your ankles and avoid undisturbed areas, including logs and piles of leaves. Be watchful - snakes are cold blooded and often perch in sunny spots or hide in logs or leaves, watching for prey.

Sanders says, in retrospect, he would have made more noise when he walked into his ivy, and he would have worn hiking boots, instead of the flip-flops he wore. “I would have spoken loudly and carried a big stick.”

If you are bitten by a snake, contact 911. Or, you can reach your local poison control center anywhere in the United States by calling 1-800-222-1222.

Snake bite = $143,000 hospital bill


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