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Fit For Duty--Fangs and Scales Don’t Mean Death

How to avoid snakebites and how not to die when you’re fanged.

December 01, 2001  |  by George Dvorchak

Shown are the fangs from a rattlesnake. As you can see, being struck would be like getting an injection with a short needle.

Watch Out For the Pit Vipers

If you are going to be in the outdoors you are likely to come in contact with snakes at some point in your career. What I find interesting is how many people react to the initial encounter with a snake. Someone who barely blinks an eye after falling and getting skinned up can get hysterical or extremely excited at the sight of a snake. If this type of individual is bitten, he may even pass out due to fear.

The Merck Manual says that more than 45,000 individuals are bitten every year by various snakes; less than 8,000 cases are from poisonous varieties. Of those bitten, according to the manual, "fewer than 15 fatalities per year occur." This low fatality rate is attributed to the ready availability of medical care and the fact that a snake does not always inject venom when he bites.

In the United States, most bites come from the pit viper, a variety that includes the rattlesnake, copperhead and water moccasin. 

Taking Precautions

Where are snakes found? Most are found under logs and old boards, around old stone foundations or brick piles, in brush piles or around the edges of streams, ponds or swampy areas. But snakes are not always hiding: Be careful when traveling on or near trails in the woods. Snakes like to "sunbathe" on sunny patches on trails.

To avoid a bite when you encounter a snake, do the following:

  • Do not put your hands into holes or crevices, snakes' favorite hiding places.
  • Before stepping over a rock or log, look over it to see what is on the other side.
  • Be alert to your surroundings and take notice of anything that appears out of place.
  • If going to an unfamiliar area, inquire ahead of time as to what snakes are there and where you can go for emergency medical aid if bitten.
  • When you know an area has a high population of poisonous snakes, consider wearing snakeproof chaps.
  • Remember that rattlesnakes do not always rattle.

What to Do Once Bitten By a Nonpoisonous Snake

First, are you sure the snake that bit you was nonpoisonous? Generally speaking, pit vipers can be distinguished from nonpoisonous snakes by their elliptical pupils, broad head with narrow neck and the presence of fangs.

A pit viper bite leaves one to six puncture wounds. Once bitten, the area may swell with pain that usually becomes quite severe almost immediately. However, poisonous bites don't always cause pain, so don't rule out poison just because your wound feels OK.

If the bite was by a nonpoisonous variety, the area should be washed with soap and water and your doctor immediately called for advice.

How to Handle a Bite from a Poisonous Snake

Even if a poisonous snake bites you, it might not have injected any poison. As stated in the Merck Manual, in about 20%-30% of pit viper bites, no poisoning occurs. In such a case, these wounds will be handled by your physician as puncture wounds.

On the other hand, if you're unfortunate enough to get a poisonous snakebite, the venom injected is a complex mixture largely made up of proteins that can cause an array of damage to your tissues and organs.

According to the Merck Manual, if the patient is within 30 to 40 minutes of a medical facility, he should be kept at rest and transported there as soon as possible. The injured body part should be loosely immobilized in a functional position just below heart level and all rings, watches and constrictive clothing removed.

As is obvious, immediate medical care is mandatory with any poisonous bite. The necessary treatment is beyond what can be done with first aid, except for one procedure that may help if done within five minutes of the bite. That is to draw out some of the poison with a device called the Sawyer Extractor vacuum pump. This suctioning device should be applied directly over the puncture for at least 30 minutes and possibly up to an hour. This can be of some benefit while the victim is on the way to the hospital.

Also, if the snake is dead, it is a good idea to bring it to the hospital in a bag.
Since the best approach to snakebites is not getting bitten, use common sense and if you must be in areas where there are snakes, look before you leap.

Dr. George Dvorchak, M.D., has survived all of his encounters with snakes. Not all of those scaly fellas have been so lucky.

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