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Emergency Care for Snake Bites

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How to prevent and treat snakebites at work, around the home, or doing outdoor activities.

Anyone who works outside has probably seen a snake at some point in their life. Most often they are non-venomous and not aggressive, but if you hike, jog, garden, or work outdoors you should know some ways to prevent snake bites and basic first aid for treating snake bites.

Snakebite Facts

Each year there are about 45,000 snakebites in the United States and about 7,000 are from venomous snakes. Approximately 15 percent of those venomous bites result in death. Eighty-five of the bites occur below the knee, called “natural bites”, and 50 percent are classified as “dry”, meaning no venom is injected.

Snakebite Prevention

First of all, never try to capture or handle a snake, especially if the snake has been hit with any type of tool or debris. Disturbing a snake makes it agitated and aggressive.

• Be alert when working around tall grass, piles of leaves, rocks, or water.

• Avoid climbing on rocks or piles of wood where a snake may be hiding.

• In warm weather, snakes tend to be active at night.

• Wear boots and long pants tucked into your boots.

• Wear leather gloves when handling yard debris and brush.

• Make plenty of noise and vibration when walking to announce your presence.

What to do if you are bitten by a snake:

• Seek medical attention as soon as possible.

• Note the color and shape of the snake to help identify it later to medical personnel. If possible take a picture of it with your cell phone. Most medical personnel will know what snakes are indigenous to the area and can often identify the snake from the bite wound.

• Keep still and calm to slow the spread of venom. Most snake bite victims survive.

• While waiting for medical personnel to arrive lay or sit with the bite below the heart level.

• Remove constricting clothing and jewelry from the extremity. The area may swell and constricting items will cause tissue death.

• If you can’t get to a hospital right away or an ambulance does not arrive quickly, wash the bite with soap and water and then cover it with a clean, dry dressing.

DO NOT:

• Pick up the snake or try to trap it.

• Wait for symptoms to appear before seeking medical attention.

• Apply a tourniquet.

• Elevate the bite wound.

• Slash the wound with a knife.

• Suck out the venom.

• Apply ice or immerse the wound in water.

• Apply a heat compress.

• Drink caffeinated beverages.

Snake Identification

Pit vipers includes rattlesnakes , cottonmouths , and copperheads.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Northern Copperhead

Cottonmouth (Water Moccasin)

Pit vipers have a triangular-shaped head, nostril pits, elliptical pupils, and subcaudal plates arranged in a single row. They may be found in all regions of the country, and their habitat varies by species. Cottonmouths reside near swamps or rivers. Copperheads are found in aquatic and dry environments, and rattlesnakes prefer dry grasslands and rocky hillsides.

Coral snakes

Coral snake pupils are round, and their subcaudal scales are arranged in double rows. The southern and southwestern states provide the dry, sandy conditions, and often a body of water, that coral snakes prefer.

Western coral snake

The eastern and western species that inhabit the United States are smaller and brightly colored with red, yellow, and black rings. The nonvenomous king snakes share the same colors but not in the same order. A common mnemonic to recall the order of bands is "red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, venom lack." These snakes are shown in the image below.

Comparison of the harmless Mexican milksnake (top) with Texas coral snake (bottom).

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Daniel Snyder

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