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Snakes And Snakebites: how to avoid, what to do if you get bit

Unless you are Harry Potter or "He Who Shall Not Be Named", snakes can be scary. They are an important part of our ecosystems, though, so we do need to learn to get along.

In our region, there are over 20 different species of snakes you may encounter while hiking or otherwise enjoying the great outdoors, but only two are venomous: the Timber Rattlesnake and the Eastern Copperhead. These snakes are pit vipers who survive by hiding and ambushing their prey (lizards, small rodents, etc.). Most active in summer, they hide in places where they can ambush small rodents or other reptiles, detect the body heat of the prey with the “pit” on their heads that gives them their name, then strike and inject their venom through two long fangs. Voila! Dinner!

We humans are waaaay too big to look like dinner to a rattlesnake or copperhead, so they are not going to go out of their way to bite us. Most human snakebites occur either when someone accidentally steps too close or tries to handle the snake and the snake strikes defensively. Most serious snake bites happen to males aged 25-34 and are often associated with alcohol or drug intoxication. Respect and avoidance are your friends - Leave the snakes alone and they will reciprocate.

Don't get bit!

The best treatment for snakebite is to not get bitten! Give any snake you see a wide berth. Don't go in for a selfie. Use a hiking stick to prod downed trees, logs across the path, and other nice hidey spots before you put your hand or foot there. Step on logs before you step over them.

We highly recommend you NOT go hiking in snake country in shorts and sandals! Recently, a hiker in our area was bitten on the heel while wearing sandals – the snake’s fangs probably would not have penetrated a good pair of boots. Hiking gaiters and even long pants can provide an extra layer the fangs will have to penetrate to reach your skin.

If you do get a snake bite, don't panic.

In our area, venomous snake bites are highly unlikely to be fatal but they can result in disfiguring injury or even loss of a limb. There is nothing you can do "in the field" (in the woods, in your yard, wherever) to change the outcome. Just get busy finding medical help as soon as the bite occurs.

Good example of why it is important to know where you are when hiking...

Call 911. Don't it right away. If you can, let the 911 operator know exactly when the bite happened.

Tell 911 your location (coordinates if you know them) and intended direction of travel if you are going to move (to a nearby roadway, for instance, to make it easier for the rescue team to find you). You may need to climb a bit to get cell coverage - move up if possible. Coverage is better on ridges. If you still can't get a call through, send a text message - sometimes they work even when calls won't.

If you are out in the woods, start moving in the direction you told 911 you would walk. The walk won't make the effects of the bite worse and may reduce the delay in getting to definitive medical care.

Don't know where you are or the fastest way out? Most 911 centers can track the GPS in your phone. So make sure you always have a nice full battery when you head out.

In any case, follow the instructions of the 911 operator.

What not to do

Don't try to kill the snake and bring it to the emergency department. That kind of mischief might result in a second bite (even from a dead snake - yeah, that really happens).

Here in WV Central Appalachia, the only venomous snakes are pit vipers. The treatment is the same whether it's a rattlesnake or copperhead. Treatment will be based on signs and symptoms, not so much snake ID. Leave the snake, don't look back.

No, don't try to do this. Seriously.

Don't go pulling out your pocket knife, incising the bite, and trying to suck out venom. That's now how it works.

Put away the fancy suction device you found online. In fact, toss it in the trash.

Don’t apply a tourniquet; that may actually increase the risk of tissue destruction around the bite.

Electric shocks and ice don’t help either, no matter what you may have heard.

Forget all the McGyver tricks you saw on YouTube. At best, they don't work. At worst, you are going to make things more painful and/or dangerous.

There is one thing you can do while waiting for medical help: remove any rings, watches, or constrictive clothing from the bite area. That is it.

This bears repeating in capital screamy letters: THE ONLY WAY TO HANDLE A SNAKEBITE IS TO GET TO THE HOSPITAL, and to do that as quickly as safely possible. If emergency medical services (EMS) can get to you relatively quickly, go by ambulance – the paramedics will be able to treat symptoms like pain and nausea on the way, and provide critical life support if needed. However, if EMS is delayed having your hiking partner drive you to the hospital or to a rendezvous point with an ambulance may save time. DON’T DRIVE YOURSELF! If you get lightheaded or pass out, the car wreck may wind up being worse than the snakebite!

Once in the Emergency Department, you will be monitored to see if the bite was just a “dry bite” which occurs in up to 25% of bites. Signs of "significant envenomation" (venom entering your system in enough quantity to cause more serious symptoms) include progressive swelling, redness, and pain at the bite site; bruising; an unusual metallic taste; facial muscle twitching, and lab abnormalities (such as how your blood clots). If these develop, a decision may be made to treat you with a special antivenin until the symptoms resolve. This requires admission to the hospital, usually to an ICU.

And so we come full circle to the best advice: don't get bit. When snakes are most active, take precautions. Use your hiking pole before you put your foot down. Know where you are, have a way to communicate with the outside world. And no selfies with snakes.

Enjoy the woods, but respect them too! And tread carefully...especially if you don't speak Parseltongue. Hisssssssss.

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