Rattlesnake Bite Treatment

[Originally published for Wilderness Way Magazine in early 2000s]

“expect the unexpected!” that is what I have always been taught… Okay, told anyway.

One summer, in the early 2000s, Christopher Nyerges, Dude and I were out on a hike up in the Angeles National Forest. After a long day of skills training, the day was winding down and we started to break our day camp. I walked over to a nearby creek to wash up. Considering it was the middle of September and we were breaking heat records, the water was very cool and inviting. As I got up, turned around, and was about to plant my foot, there in front of me was the biggest pacific rattler I had ever seen. I moved so fast I would have made Carl Lewis proud. More frightening was I was knelt down at the edge of the creek with my back turned away from this snake. That means I had walked right by it to begin with… just thinking back gives me the shivers. The ironic part is that I had just finished doing research on rattlesnakes for Wilderness Way.

The purpose of this report is to help you become aware of some of the do’s and don’ts regarding rattlesnakes.

Rattlesnakes belong to the pit viper family, which also include water moccasins and copperheads. The name pit vipers comes from the two sensitive facial pits on either side of the snakes head, between the nostrils and eyes, which detect the heat of warm blooded animals when hunting.

There are 84 species and subspecies of rattlesnakes in the world. Of those species, Arizona has the most species at 17.

The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake is the largest species (The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake being a close second.) The Pygmy Rattlesnake is the smallest species and grows to about between 15 to 22 inches in length.

It is theorized that rattlesnakes evolved rattles as audible warnings to protect themselves from herds of heavy-footed mammals, like buffalo. At least one rattlesnake, that we are aware of, has no rattle. The Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake has lost its rattle completely. It is also theorized, since it climbs bushes to catch birds, a rattle would betray its presence while it ascends a tree in search of its prey.

Rattlesnakes do not lay eggs. They actually give birth to live young. Female rattlesnakes only reproduce once every two years and carry the eggs inside of their bodies for about 90 days. Young rattlers are almost independent just minutes after they are born and in some species their venom is more toxic than the adults’ venom, though the general consensus is that young rattlers, can’t efficiently control the amount of venom they inject, giving basis to that story.

Most rattlesnake venoms are hemotoxic, meaning it attacks the body’s blood and tissues. North America is home to only one Neurotoxic rattlesnake… the Mojave Green. It’s venom attacks the central nervous system causing respiratory failure, Making it more difficult to treat than any other rattlesnake bite.

Remember, snakes bite to defend themselves. If frightened, they will first try to escape or hide, Different species will react in different ways: some remain still, relying on their coloration for camouflage, others just glide away silently. If escape is not an option, they will hiss, rattle their tail, and puff up their body to warn off an enemy. Most snakes will give a warning before they bite, although they may strike quickly if they are startled during shedding, mating, or giving birth.

A rattlesnakes striking distance is at most 2/3 its body length. When it is coiled its size may be very deceptive. So caution should always be maintained.

If a snake bites you

Dr. Sean Bush from Loma Linda University Medical center advises the following:

Imagine that a rattlesnake has just bitten you. At first you can’t believe it, but you look at your leg and there are two fang puncture wounds oozing blood. You have a strange metallic taste in your mouth. Your leg starts to swell and you develop severe pain. Your whole body goes numb. The muscles in your face, neck, and chest start to twitch and writhe. Breathing becomes difficult. You feel as if you are going to faint–as if you are going to die…What should you do?

Here is what you need to know.

First, call 911. Go to the closest emergency department where antivenom can be given to you. Antivenom is the antidote for snakebite. It binds venom and inactivates it so that further damage is stopped.

Antibodies are blood proteins created to fight antigens. These antibodies collect in the serum, which is eventually separated from the dark red cells. After the serum has been purified a little more, it’s ready to be injected at a moment’s notice.

The case above describes what could happen in the worst case scenario. Sometimes snakebites result in only minor injury. However, it is not possible to predict which bites will result in mild symptoms and which can potentially kill you. Therefore, you should always seek immediate medical care after any venomous snakebite. All patients with rattlesnake bites should be admitted to the hospital.

If you or anyone you know is ever bitten by a rattlesnake the first thing one should do is remain calm minimize activity and seek immediate medical attention. By no means should one tamper with the bite area what so ever. So called rattlesnake bite kits that are sold on the market are not recommended, as they can and probably cause more harm than good.

Remove jewelry and tight-fitting clothes in anticipation of severe swelling. Do not cut across fang marks and do not try to suck out the venom with your mouth or a suction device. This could lead to complications and infections.

A tourniquet is not recommended because it could cut off circulation. However, an ace wrap and splint may delay the time to death in the rare event of a fatal bite, but could risk further injury to an arm or leg.

Do not take aspirin or ibuprofen after snakebite. Many snake venoms can thin the blood and these medicines may compound this effect, leading to bleeding.

Other first aid that does not help or that is potentially more harmful than the snakebite includes applying electric shock, drinking alcohol, and placing ice directly on the wound.

Avoid further injury by staying away from the snake.

Paramedics should arrive shortly and start you on intravenous fluids. They should transport you to the hospital. Shortly after you arrive at the hospital, antivenom may be started. You may start to feel better. However, depending on the extent of injury, you may require pain medication and a surgeon may be called to evaluate your bite wounds.

If you are treated for snakebite, there are a few things you should watch for after being discharged from the hospital. You should watch for unusual bleeding, such as bleeding gums or bruising easily. If you develop any unusual bleeding, you should return to the emergency department immediately. Watch for signs of infection (for example, redness, pain, swelling, or pus) around the bite wound. Also, watch for signs of allergy to antivenom, such as an itchy rash, fever, swollen lymph nodes, or painful joints. This reaction can be easily treated.

Although snakes are widely feared, fewer than half a dozen deaths occur per year in the United States after snakebite. Lightning kills more people in the United States than snakes do. However, serious injury and disability can result from a snakebite, such as the loss of a finger or the loss of function at a joint. While recovering from these types of injuries, you may need to be referred to a physical therapist.

Many people believe that a baby rattlesnake is more dangerous than an adult rattlesnake. However, a large rattlesnake is more likely to deliver much more venom than a baby rattlesnake. In the clinical experience at Loma Linda University Medical Center, large rattlesnakes cause more serious injuries than baby rattlesnakes.[/i]

Rattlesnake Bite Treatment

Snakebite prevention

Because of the antivenom shortage, it is extremely important to prevent snakebites when possible. To avoid snakebites, leave snakes alone. Don’t handle or try to kill a rattlesnake. That’s how many people get bitten. A snake can strike faster and farther than you might think–about half its body length. Fangs can still inject venom even after a snake is believed to be dead. Snakes that were presumed to be dead have killed people. The majority of snakebites are “intentionally interactive,” meaning that the bite occurred when the snake was being handled, molested, or killed.

Don’t reach or step into places outdoors that you can’t see. Wearing boots and long pants when hiking may also help prevent snakebites.

If a rattlesnake is found near your home, it’s best to contact professionals such as Animal Control to remove it. If you must move a rattlesnake from your home yourself, scoop the snake with a long-handled shovel into a large trash can, cover it, and relocate the snake away from your property.

If you see a snake in the wild, maintain a distance of at least 6 feet. Snakes are fascinating creatures that deserve our respect. Snakes are beneficial to the environment and most snakes (such as king snakes and gopher snakes) are harmless.

Here is an exceptional video series with Dr. Sean Bush


As always be safe and be ready…