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Snakebites

If you are like most people, you are probably not very fond of snakes, poisonous or not.  Considering many kids at some point in time express their love for all creatures and voice a desire to be a veterinarian, their curiosity and naivety may put them in a precarious situation next to a poisonous, or venomous, snake.

And sometimes your child may just be walking in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Well, soon winter will turn to spring and summer and our little cold blooded (seeks shelter at 55 degrees) friends will be back.  There are 6000-8000 venomous bites per year in the United States with the highest rate of venomous snakes in the South.

If you take the time to visually inspect a snake (not recommended), you can figure out whether you’re new found friend is venomous or nonvenomous:

Venomous

  • Fangs
  • Triangular head
  • Elliptical eyes (slit-like)
  • Single row of plates on the tail

Nonvenomous

  • No fangs
  • Round head
  • Round eyes
  • Double row of plates on the tale


Click here for photograph called Poisonous vs nonpoisonous snakes
The large majority of venomous snakes is in the pit viper family and is responsible for most of the snakebites in the US.  They are referred to as pit vipers because of small, heat-sensitive pits between the eye and the nostril that allow them to sense their prey.

I will review three of the most common: Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, Copperhead, and Cottonmouth.  From a different family of snakes I will briefly mention the Eastern Coral snake.

a) Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (photo called Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake)

The most common venomous snakebites in the US are from rattlesnakes. The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake is the largest and most dangerous rattler in the US.  It typically causes the most severe signs and symptoms after a bite and accounts for a large majority of lethal bites.

b) Copperhead (photo called Southern Copperhead snake)

This nonaggresive snake accounts for most of the pit viper bites but fortunately is the least venomous.  This does not mean that a copperhead bite should be taken nonchalantly; they can cause significant illness as well.

c) Cottonmouth (water moccasin) (photo called Eastern cottonmouth)

This aggressive snake is generally found in the Southeast and prefers to venture in and around swamps and lakes.

What are the signs and symptoms of a pit viper bite?

  • Intense pain within minutes at the site of the bite.
  • Redness or bruising and swelling of the skin which can quickly
  • move up the body from the site of the bite may be blistering present
  • Metallic taste in the mouth and numbness around the mouth
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe illness: low blood pressure, easy bleeding

What do I do if my child is bitten by a snake?

  • Call your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222 then seek medical attention immediately!
  • Describe the snake to the poison control center, if known.
  • As you prepare for transport to a medical facility here are several steps you can take to care for your child:
  • If possible, have your child stay still as much as possible; preferably lying down.
  • If they were bitten on a hand or arm and they will not lie down, try to keep there arm elevated to the level of their heart.
  • Take off any jewelry or tight clothing near the bite quickly, before swelling starts.
  • Clean the bite wound with soap and water while wiping in the direction away from the wound.
  • Tie an elastic wrap just above the bite. The wrap should be loose enough to slip a finger underneath it.
  • Do not apply ice to the wound or an arterial tourniquet to the affected arm or leg.  Both will probably cause more damage to the affected area.
  • Using a suction device (i.e., Sawyer extractor) over the bite marks is unproven in humans; however, if it can be applied immediately to the wound without delaying transport to a medical facility then it would be worth attempting.

Do not spend time tracking down the snake.  A second victim may result and transport to a medical facility will be delayed.

What will doctors and nurses do for my child when I arrive at the hospital after a pit viper snake bite:

  • Their vital signs and certain blood tests will be checked when you arrive and over a period of time in which they will be observed closely.
  • If their blood pressure is low they will be given fluids through an IV.
  • If their blood tests indicate that they may be at risk of bleeding, blood products such as platelets, which are necessary to prevent bleeding, may be given.
  • Wound care will be performed as needed·
  • A tetanus shot may be given if indicated
  • Pain control is important because a snakebite can cause excruciating pain.
  • If your child is ill with abnormal vital signs or laboratory tests, or there is a large amount of swelling at the bite site which is spreading up their extremity, if bitten on an arm or leg, they may be given an antivenin and hospitalized.
  • If after approximately 6 hours their vital signs and blood tests are normal and they do not have significant swelling where they were bitten, then your child may be discharged home.

Fortunately, in up to 20% of cases, a snakebite is “dry” in which case the venom is not released into the body.
d) Eastern Coral Snake (see photo called Eastern Coral snake)

  • nonaggresive snake generally found in the South
  • bites are not that common but this snake can cause serious illness
  • a poisonous snake but does have round eyes and no fangs (the exception to the rule)
  • very little injury is noted on the skin
  • looks like the less risky King snake, but you can tell the difference between the two by their color patterns:

For the Eastern Coral snake the red part touches the yellow part and for the King snake the red part touches the black part.

  • this point was even made on an episode of Arthur

What are the signs and symptoms of an Eastern Coral Snake?

- dizziness
- visual problems and droopy eyelids
- weakness
- trouble swallowing or breathing

What will doctors and nurses do for my child when I arrive at the hospital after a coral snake bite?

The same treatment as for a pit viper bite but with a few differences in care:

  • If it is known that your child has been bitten by an Eastern Coral snake, then they will be given an antivenin immediately because signs and symptoms may be delayed and the antivenin takes a while to work.
  • Blood tests are unnecessary after a bite from this snake.
  • Your child should be admitted to the hospital to be watched closely for at least 12 hours to make sure no serious illness develops.

How do I lessen the risk of my child being bitten by a snake?

  1. During the summer and early fall, extra precaution should be taken when a child is playing outdoors.
  2. Avoid letting them play in tall grass or swamps and placing their hands into deep holes in the ground.
  3. If you have to move through tall grass or weeds, poke at the ground in front of you with a long stick to scare away any snakes.
  4. Watch where they step and where they sit when outdoors.
  5. If they should play in the woods or near a swamp, they should preferably wear long pants with some type of boots.
  6. Victims of snakebites are often young, intoxicated males who tease a snake or try to capture it.  Its best if this behavior can be avoided.
  7. Be careful not to handle a dead snake. Recently killed snakes may still bite by reflex several hours after death.