What to do, and not to do, if bitten by a rattlesnake
Following the death of a child who was bit by a rattlesnake near Colorado Springs, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is trying to raise awareness in case someone else, or even a dog, is bitten.
CPW species conservation coordinator Tina Jackson has spent the last 20 years learning about snakes, and she shared her knowledge in a Colorado Parks and Wildlife podcast.
Why rattlesnakes bite and what happens
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, rattlesnakes are usually gracious in terms of their defensive behavior. They have a defensive strategy that seeks to avoid the need for a venomous bite if at all possible. Unfortunately, and often because people choose to provoke a defensive snake or are unlucky enough to step on one, bites do occur.
Though usually not fatal for a healthy adult, a bite is very painful and should always be taken seriously.
Rattlesnake venom is hemotoxic, which results in the destruction of muscle and soft tissue around the site of the bite. In prey, the venom acts not only to subdue, but also begins the digestion process before the snake even swallows its prey.
The same process goes into effect when humans are bitten, and tissue damage can be extensive. In extreme cases, reconstructive surgery or even amputation of a finger or limb may be necessary.
Public agencies as well as members of the public should be well prepared for such an emergency. Preparation should involve both familiarization with the proper procedures for treating snakebite and, just as important, knowledge of what not to do.
The following is a step-by-step description of how to properly treat someone bitten by a venomous snake beginning immediately after the bite. This information came from HerpMed, the Food and Drug Administration, the American Red Cross and the Rocky Mountain Poison Control Center.
Snakebite emergency first-aid
For human victims, if the snake is still in the vicinity, carefully move away to a safe place where the person who was bitten can lie flat and rest comfortably.
• Encourage that person to remain calm and offer reassurance. Encourage others in the group and yourself to remain calm as well.
• If in a group, send one member to notify local emergency staff and the nearest hospital. Do not leave the person who was bitten alone while you go get help. Carry a cell phone with you while you recreate.
• Allow the bite to bleed freely for about 30 seconds.
• Cleanse and disinfect the bite area with Betadine (iodine). If unavailable or if the victim is allergic to iodine, use soap and water.
• If hospital treatment is more than 30 minutes away, and the bite is on a hand, finger, foot or lower arm or leg, an ACE, or other wide elastic bandage can be used as a pressure dressing. The bandage should be wrapped quickly from an area just above the bite past the knee or elbow joint, immobilizing it. Wrap no tighter than for a sprain. The goal is to restrict the movement of venom into the bloodstream without cutting off circulation to the affected limb. Check for pulse above and below bandage and rewrap if too tight.
• If available, apply an extractor to the bite until there is no more drainage. This device is often able to remove some venom from the wound and creates a negative pressure gradient that slows the spread of venom into the body. (The Sawyer Extractor is a beneficial device recommended by the Rocky Mountain Poison Control Center and experts in medical herpetology.)
• If an extractor is not available, apply direct pressure to the bite using a 4 inch by 4 inch gauze pad folded in half twice. Soak the pad in Betadine and tape it in place.
• Remove all rings, watches, jewelry and tight fitting clothing. The bite area and most of the bitten appendage will swell.
• Immobilize the bitten extremity as much as possible, using splints if necessary.
• Try to keep the bite location even with the heart. Raising it above the heart will increase the spread of venom into the body. Swelling will increase if kept below heart level.
• After administering first aid, take the victim to the nearest hospital or medical facility. Move slowly and deliberately, offer encouragement and avoid any unnecessary excitement or stress.
• If not done previously, get someone to call ahead to the nearest hospital so that it will be prepared for the victim’s arrival.
What not to do
If you have been bitten by a rattlesnake, do not assume it is not serious or that treatment can be delayed.
• Do not leave the victim alone in order to get help.
• Do not apply oral (mouth) suction to the bite. Such action has the potential to introduce harmful bacteria into the wound that could cause sepsis. Also, venom will pass into the would-be-rescuer’s system through any cuts or sores in the mouth.
• Do not make any sort of incision into or around the bite marks. This will only increase trauma to the bite location and further agitate a victim who needs to remain as calm as possible.
• Do not apply a narrow, constrictive tourniquet such as a belt, shoelace or cord. Restricting blood flow in this manner puts the bitten extremity at a high risk for amputation.
• Do not engage in strenuous physical activity. This will only speed the spread of venom to vital organs.
• Do not apply ice, hot or cold packs to the bite. These have no proven beneficial effects and may compound tissue damage through burns or frostbite.
• Do not use a stun gun or electric shock treatment of any kind. Electric shock also has no proven beneficial effect and increases victim stress and trauma.
• Do not allow the victim to drink alcohol, take aspirin or use any medication.
• Do not give the victim anything to eat or drink unless approved by the attending physician.
• Do not remove pressure dressings until antivenom is available.
• Do not waste time or take any additional risks attempting to kill or capture the offending snake. The only wild venomous snakes in Colorado are rattlesnakes and treatment is the same for all three species — prairie rattlesnake, the Western rattlesnake and the massasauga rattlesnake.
If you encounter a snake, try to freeze in place. Snakes are often heard before seen. If you hear a rattlesnake, stop in place until you or a companion can locate the animal.
Attempting to move away from a snake you can’t see may lead you closer to it. Even if the snake is in plain view, freezing movement will reduce the threat you pose to the snake and help you calmly assess the situation.
Seek to establish a safe distance. Rattlesnakes can strike to a distance of half their body length, and a good rule is to try to get at least five feet between you and the snake. If possible, move slowly back the way you came.
Leave the snake alone. Do not try to catch, kill, provoke or move a rattlesnake. One-third of people who suffer snakebites were bitten while trying to handle or kill a snake.
According to CPW, understanding rattlesnakes can go a long way in reducing unwanted encounters. Rattlesnakes are basically creatures of habit and often bask, hunt, migrate and den in the same areas year after year.
Unlike many of their relatives, rattlesnakes are not built for speed. They are predators that lie in wait, often spending hours or even days in the same location waiting for prey to pass by.
Most non-venomous snakes prefer to flee perceived danger and usually have the speed to do so. Rattlesnakes, because of how they are built, often have no choice but to stand their ground when threatened.
Rattlesnakes use camouflage as their first line of defense. They would rather hide than interact with humans or other animals. Because of their coloration, most rattlesnakes blend in with their surroundings exceptionally well.
In most cases, they will simply ignore you, thinking that you cannot see them. However, if the snake coils up and rattles, you are too close and should move away slowly.
Stepping back just a few feet can be enough to convince the snake that you are not a threat. Most rattlesnakes will not strike at people unless they feel threatened or are deliberately provoked.
Rattlesnakes also have a fairly predictable pattern of activity.
During the coldest months of the year, they shelter in winter dens and usually resume activity in April or early May. Once active, adult snakes may migrate several kilometers from their dens in search of food.
In the spring and fall, cool temperatures require the snakes to bask in the sun or on warm surfaces for much of the day. Pavement and other hard surfaces such as trails are often sought out for basking.
Hunting usually occurs in the late afternoon and evening once the snakes have become warm enough for such activity. When temperatures allow, rattlesnakes may also prowl for food in the early afternoon or at night.
If your pup is bitten by a rattlesnake, Colorado Parks and Wildlife suggests you:
• Move a safe distance away from the snake and calm the dog.
• Clean the wound with soap and water and treat with antibiotic ointment if available.
• A Sawyer or other venom extractor should not be used because the dog’s hair will prevent a good seal from forming.
• Limit physical exertion and get the animal to veterinary care immediately, calling ahead if possible.
• Keeping your dog on a leash while out recreating can help to mitigate or prevent interactions your dog may have with a rattlesnake.
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