The Full Story
The beginning of warmer weather is the beginning of snakebite season, usually much sooner than people expect. Copperhead snakes are related to rattlesnakes and cottonmouth or water moccasins. Their bites can be painful and may require treatment with antivenin. Victims are expected to recover, though full recovery can take weeks. Coral snake bites generally don't cause severe symptoms right away; victims are expected to recover, but it might take a while.
Many of these bites occur around people's homes, when the snakes are defending themselves from a perceived threat. You don't have to be a hiker or camper or climber or swimmer to encounter snakes. A girl was bitten on her foot when she went outside at dusk to put her bicycle away. A man was bitten on his toe when he went onto his deck to cover the hot tub. A woman was bitten in her garage, another in her basement.
How can you prevent bites like this?
- Remember that snakes would rather leave you alone! Give them a chance!! Look where you walk and look before you reach or grab something hidden. Turn on the lights if it's dark.
- Wear shoes when you go outdoors. In several of these bites, people went outdoors in bare feet or sandals, often in the dark.
If someone is bitten by a snake:
- DON'T panic. Snakebites can be treated, and bites generally are less dangerous than many people assume.
- DON'T risk another bite by trying to capture or kill the snake. If you can take a picture or describe the snake, that's good but not essential.
- DON'T use old first aid remedies: no tourniquet, no ice, no electric shocks, no cutting the wound and sucking out the venom. None of these "treatments" help and most of them make things worse.
- DO keep the person quiet and still.
- DO keep the arm or leg (usual sites for snakebite) at the level of the heart.
- DO remove any jewelry, watches, and tight clothing from the area of the bite.
- DO wash the area gently with soap and water.
Finally, call Poison Control right away at 1-800-222-1222. Local experts in treating snakebites are there. They will help you figure out if the bite is from a poisonous or non-poisonous snake. They will tell you what to do next, based on your symptoms. If you have to go to an emergency room, they will connect you to the 911 dispatcher. Then, they'll call the emergency room and work with the doctors there so you'll get the right treatment. If you need antivenin, they will work with other hospital staff to be sure you get the right amount. And, they will stay in touch with you at home until the bite is healed and you feel better.
Poisonous snakes don't always inject venom when they bite, and many snakebites are from non-poisonous snakes. Be sure to call Poison Control promptly if someone is bitten. You may be able to avoid a trip to the emergency room altogether.
Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
Quan D. North American poisonous bites and stings. Crit Care Clin. 2012;28:633–659.
Sasaki J, Khalil PA, Chegondi M, Raszynski A, Meyer KG, Totapally BR. Coral snake bites and envenomation in children: a case series. Pediatr Emer Care. 2014;30: 262-265
- Remember that snakes would rather leave you alone! Give them a chance to get away!! Look where you walk and look before you reach or grab something hidden. Turn on the lights if it's dark.
- Wear shoes when you go outdoors. In several of these bites, people went outdoors in bare feet or sandals, often in the dark
This Really Happened
Case 1: A 17-month-old girl was in her family's garage where she was bitten by a copperhead snake on the top of her foot. When she got to the emergency room, her foot and ankle were swollen and bruised. She was given antivenin but the swelling continued. Within 10 hours, the swelling was up to her groin; it was causing pressure on muscle tissue in her leg. Additional antivenin was given, a total of 26 vials during her treatment. She also received pain medication. The swelling began to recede. By hospital day 4, the child was able to walk and was discharged. Two weeks later, the child's skin looked normal and she was back to her normal level of activity.
Mazer-Amirshahi M, Boutsikaris A, Clancy C. Elevated compartment pressures from copperhead envenomation successfully treated with antivenin. J Emerg Med. 2014;46(1):34-37.
Case 2: A 25-year-old woman was bitten on her ankle by a copperhead snake in mid-April while walking down some steps toward a creek in suburban Washington, DC. She presented to the nearest emergency room within twenty minutes. The emergency physician consulted Poison Control for toxicity information and treatment advice. The patient was given wound care, a tetanus shot, sedation for anxiety and ibuprofen for minor pain. She did not develop any swelling at the bite site and was discharged to home after six hours of observation. In a follow-up call from Poison Control 24-hours later, the patient reported that she was fine. She stated that the bite had gone through her jeans and she suspected that it was a dry bite.