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Dealing With That Snake in the Grass

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 16, 2000 – We call people we don't like a "snake." We call people who stab us in the back a "snake in the grass."

Westerners see snakes as evil, and that seems to color thinking about the reptiles.

U.S. service members are based around the world and spend a lot of time in the bush. It's almost inevitable they will confront poisonous snakes. For most of us, there's the temptation to act like a certain "B.C." comic strip character and start whomping them.

But snakes, especially poisonous snakes in the United States, are generally shy and are generally as scared of you as you are of them. Most of the time, snakes will move to avoid you.

In 1989, the most recent year for snakebite statistics worldwide, there were 300,000 reported snakebites. They resulted in 30,000 deaths -- 20,000 in India, said Bela Demeter, a biologist with the department of herpetology at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park in Washington.

In the United States, 7,000 venomous snakebites are reported annually resulting in 15 fatalities. So, even if you are bitten, your odds of surviving are roughly 466 out of 467.

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, N.H. "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.

Even if a poisonous snake bites you, you've got a 50-50 chance that no venom is injected. Rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads are pit vipers and are the most common poisonous snakes in America. "They only inject venom when they are striking to eat something," Kane said. "They are not going to eat something the size of a human, so 40 to 50 percent of the time these are dry bites.”

Demeter said snake strikes against humans are generally defensive. "About half of snake bites tend to be dry bites," he said. "If you are bitten, you would know pretty quickly whether poison was injected or not."

Pit vipers inject poison through two fangs. Generally, a bite would create two puncture wounds. If the snake injected venom, the victim will feel intense, burning pain and swelling around the holes.

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," Demeter said. "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."

The one piece of first aid people should remember is to not panic. "Contrary to myth," Demeter said, "there's no such thing as a 'one-stepper' or a 'two-stepper'" -- that's the power of the snake venom expressed as the number of steps you can take before you keel over dead. "The toxicity of these snakes is highly exaggerated." What people need to do is to receive treatment as soon as possible after being bitten, he said.

DoD officials said military medics carry antivenin. A soldier, sailor, airman or Marine bitten by a poisonous snake is generally only minutes away from treatment. Antivenin is an equine serum; persons sensitive to vaccines from horses could have an allergic reaction.

"We commonly see that in those who have been treated with the serum before," Demeter said. "Those people stand a higher chance of going into anaphylactic shock."

Treatment for snakebite has changed over the years. Accepted practice no longer involves making X-cuts at or above the fang marks and sucking the poison out with your mouth.

"It's best not to do a whole lot," Demeter said. "If you have not done first aid on a snake bite, then you haven't done anything wrong yet."

The most commonly recommended treatment today is to keep the bite area immobilized below the level of the heart. Kane said medics can place a light constricting band between the bite and the heart. "The problem is that many people get carried away," Kane said. "That band turns into a tourniquet. You don't want to do that."

Remove any jewelry the person may be wearing. Swelling from the snakebite can progress rapidly, so rings, watches and bracelets can turn into a real problem.

Kane said medics can use a syringe-like Sawyer Extractor to suck venom from the bite site, but that's only effective if used within minutes of a bite."

Get the victim to a hospital as quickly as possible. Antivenin serum is the only sure cure, and because some people are allergic to horse serum it should only be given in a fully equipped medical facility.

Don't use ice to slow the spread of the venom. Researchers have found freezing of the stricken limb is a major factor leading to amputation.

The best cure for snakebite is prevention. Here's the CDC's tips:

  • Do not play with snakes.
  • Keep landscape well manicured.
  • Wear shoes around the house.
  • Wear gloves when weeding.
  • Wear boots in snake country.
  • Develop the habit of watching where you step and where you place your hands.
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