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Tucson Weekly Bite Fright

Snakes Don't Kill Too Many People These Days, But They're Still A Hassle Worth Avoiding.

By Kevin Franklin

AUGUST 3, 1998:  DID I JUST walk over that?" I ask, pointing to a four-foot western diamondback rattlesnake stretched across the trail.

The group assures me I did in fact walk right over one of the most dangerous snakes in North America. Meanwhile, the western diamondback continues to sun itself on the trail, its tongue docilely flicking now and then. We watch the snake--from a more respectful distance--for another minute before it decides the neighborhood's gone to hell and slithers into the grass.

I probably wouldn't have died if the snake had bitten me. Children and old folks have been known to die from bites, but generally healthy adults survive...Unless they have an anaphylactic reaction, which causes them to swell up and croak. I don't know if I'm allergic, and I'd just as soon never find out.

Even without an allergic reaction, receiving the proper first aid and professional medical attention is imperative if you're bitten by any poisonous snake.

According to the Merck Manual, a medical resource text, 8,000 people a year are bitten by poisonous snakes in the United States. Only 15 of those bites are fatal--that's good news, unless you happen to be one of the 15. Here are a few things you can do to keep yourself off that unfortunate list:

Avoid getting bitten: Most folks get bitten because they harass the snake, belong to some dorky snake-handling cult, put their hands in crevices without looking, or bear a strong resemblance to a kangaroo rat. It was once my belief that virtually everyone who suffered a rattlesnake bite had it coming. I still believe this, though because of my recent experience, I have to add "boneheaded inattentiveness" to the list.

Finding myself among the potentially at-risk inspired some research into what to do in case of emergency. Most of the information below comes from a fabulous website (www.xmission.com/~gastown/herpmed) administered by Steve Grenard, a respiratory therapist on the critical care staff of Staten Island University. Grenard has combined his medical and herpetology backgrounds to become one of the country's leading experts on poisonous snake bites, and their medical treatment.

Don't panic. If it's a North American snake, you're probably not going to die.

Get away from the snake: You'd think this was obvious, but bite victims have been bitten again in attempts to capture or kill the snake in order to haul it in for identification. This is unnecessary. A good description of the snake (from a distance) is all that medical personnel need in order to administer the proper antivenom. Take particular note of tail colors and body patterns. Time spent trying to apprehend the snake is valuable time wasted. If you still feel the need to kill the snake, keep in mind that dead snake venom is just as potent as live snake venom.

• First-aid: Wrap a three-inch or wider ace bandage around the appendage bitten. DO NOT USE A TOURNIQUET. The idea here is to reduce the flow of blood to and from the wound without cutting off circulation. Wrap the bandage no tighter than you would for a sprain, and keep it on until anti-venom is administered. This is a controversial first-aid technique because it keeps the venom concentrated in one area and could potentially result in greater tissue damage. The jury is still out on this until enough data is collected. Meanwhile, I'd say tissue damage is preferable to the possibility of death. When combined with other measures, there's evidence which I believe points to better recovery, tissue and otherwise, by using a wrap. If you're bitten on the head, however, don't wrap your neck.

The Extractor is the one and only snake-bite kit worth carrying. The Extractor is capable of 750 millibars of extractive vacuum. Anything less than that is useless. The Extractor, available at Summit Hut, creates enough vacuum to pull venom back out through the puncture wounds made by the fangs. While not the ultimate solution, the pump is a useful first-aid measure until antivenom--the only full-fledged treatment--can be administered. Do not cut open the bite or attempt to suck out the venom by mouth. The first will increase the risk of infection and possibly result in cutting an artery.

Get to a hospital and get antivenom as soon as possible. This is the second most important stage on this list (after getting away from the snake).

Do not use ice, shock therapy or any other home-grown remedies. They don't help and can do a lot of damage. For heaps more information, check out the accompanying resources.

Getting Info

Websites:

Telephone Numbers:

  • Poison Control (800) 362-0101

Books:

  • CRC Handbook of Clinical Toxicology of Animal Venoms and Poisons (Meier & White)
  • Venomous Animals of Arizona (Smith)

Articles:

  • Sonorensis, Arizona Sonora Desert Museum Newsletter, Vol. 3, No. 4, Summer 1981.


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