Rattlesnake bites: Prevention & treatment

Rattlesnakes are the largest of the venomous snakes in the United States, and there are many species of rattlesnakes in the United States. They can accurately strike at up to one-third their body length.

Rattlesnakes usually avoid humans, but about 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year, with 10 to 15 deaths, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.

Rattlesnake bites: Prevention & treatment

The species and size of the snake has a lot to do with how dangerous its poison is.

“The Mojave rattlesnake has a really bad venom,” says Bela Demeter, a biologist with the department of herpetology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park in Washington. “And for pure size, the six-foot Eastern diamondback (rattlesnake) has a massive bite. But you really never know how much is injected, it runs the spectrum from no venom to a lot.”

Recognizing rattlesnakes

A rattlesnake is a heavy-bodied, blunt-tailed snake with one or more rattles on the tail. It has a triangular-shaped head, much broader at the back than at the front, and a distinct “neck” region. The rattlesnake also has openings between the nostrils and eyes, which is a heat-sensing pit. The eyes are hooded with elliptical pupils.

Additional identifying characteristics include a series of dark and light bands near the tail, just before the rattles which are different from the markings on the rest of the body. Also note that rattles may not always be present, as they are often lost through breakage and are not always developed on the young.

Rattlesnake safety precautions

Most bites occur between the months of April and October, when snakes and humans are most active outdoors.

Rattlesnakes use their rattles or tails as a warning when they feel threatened. Generally not aggressive, rattlesnakes strike when threatened or deliberately provoked, but, given room, they will retreat. Most snake bites occur when a rattlesnake is handled or accidentally touched by someone walking or climbing, and the majority of snakebites occur on the hands, feet and ankles.

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Pit vipers (including rattlesnakes, lanceheads and Asian pit vipers) inject poison through two fangs, so typically, a bite would create two puncture wounds. If the snake injected venom, the victim will feel intense, burning pain and swelling around the holes. About 25 percent of the bites are “dry,” meaning no venom was injected, but the bites still require medical treatment.

Depending on weather and threatening conditions such wildfires, rattlesnakes may roam at any time of the day or night. Rattlesnakes may be found sunning themselves near logs, boulders, or open areas. These snakes may be found in most habitats, including the mountains, prairies, deserts, and beaches.

To avoid rattlesnake bites, some safety precautions will help:

  1. Wear appropriate over-the-ankle hiking boots, thick socks, and loose-fitting long pants. Never go barefoot or wear sandals when walking through wild areas.
  2. When hiking, stick to well-used trails if all possible.
  3. Never hike alone. Always have someone with you who can assist in an emergency.
  4. Avoid tall grass, weeds and heavy underbrush where snakes may hide during the day.
  5. Look at your feet to watch where you step, and do not put your foot in or near a crevice where you cannot see.
  6. Do not step or put your hands where you cannot see.
  7. Avoid wandering around in the dark. If walking at night, be sure to use a flashlight.
  8. Be careful when stepping over the doorstep as well. Snakes like to crawl along the edge of buildings where they are protected on one side.
  9. If a fallen tree or large rock is in your path, step up on to it instead of over it, as there might be a snake on the other side.
  10. Be especially careful when climbing rocks or gathering firewood.
  11. Check out stumps or logs before sitting down, and shake out sleeping bags before use.
  12. Do not turn over rocks or logs. If you must move a rock or log, use gloves and roll it toward you, giving anything beneath it the opportunity to escape in the opposite direction.
  13. Never grab “sticks” or “branches” while swimming in lakes and rivers. Rattlesnakes can swim.
  14. Teach children early to respect snakes and to leave them alone. Children are naturally curious and will pick up snakes.
  15. Avoid approaching any snake you cannot positively identify as a safe species.
  16. If you hear the warning rattle, move away from the area and do not make sudden or threatening movements in the direction of the snake.
  17. Remember rattlesnakes do not always rattle before they strike!
  18. Do not handle a freshly-killed snake — it can still inject venom.
  19. Carry a portable phone, hike with a companion who can assist in an emergency, and make sure that family or friends know where you are going and when you will be checking in.
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Prevention is the best cure. Males ages 15 to 30 suffer the most venomous snakebites, and most of them occur on the arms from the hand to elbow.

“What’s that say to you?” asked Bill Kane, director of education at SOLO, the wilderness education center in Conway, New Hampshire. “It means these guys are picking up poisonous snakes.” Kane said most of these poisonous snakebites happen in the Southeast and Southwest.

“Just leave them alone,” he said. The Centers for Disease Control statistics agree with Kane. The CDC classifies about 3,000 of the snakebites per year as “illegitimate,” meaning “these bites occurred while the victim was handling or molesting the snake.” CDC statistics show that 85 percent of “legitimate” snakebites in the United States occur below the knee.

First aid: DON’Ts

If bitten by a rattlesnake, DO NOT:

  • Do not make incisions over the bite wound.
  • Do not restrict blood flow by applying a tourniquet.
  • Do not ice the wound.
  • Do not suck the poison out with your mouth.

These methods can very well cause additional harm and most amputations or other serious results of a rattlesnake bite are a result of icing or applying a tourniquet.

First aid: DOs
  • Stay calm
  • Call Dispatch via radio or 911
  • Wash the bite area gently with soap and water if available
  • Remove watches, rings, etc., which may constrict swelling
  • Immobilize the affected area
  • Keep the bite below the heart if possible
  • Transport safely to the nearest medical facility immediately.
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Frenetic, high-speed driving places the victim at greater risk of an accident and increased heart rate. If the doctor is more than 30 minutes away, keep the bite below the heart, and then try to get to the medical facility as quickly as possible.

Most modern over-the-counter snakebite kits consist of a suction device for drawing out venom from the bite wound. This can be helpful in the interim of getting to a hospital or poison center if a kit is handy. Using your mouth is not advisable as the poison can enter the bloodstream through cuts or sores and might be swallowed.

Rattlesnake serum (antivenin) is made from antibodies extracted from horse blood. The serum has its own side effects, as the body will have an allergic reaction. However, it’s the most effective treatment available.

Rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal, with less than 1 in 600 resulting in death, and approximately 33 percent not containing injection of venom at all. However, you should assume for your own sake that venom has been introduced, and always seek treatment.


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