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Rattlesnake bite: What you should know

A bite from a venomous snake, such as a rattlesnake, is an emergency. If a person is bitten, it is critical they get medical help fast.

Snakes tend to avoid humans but bite only as a last resort when they are threatened or surprised. When a venomous snake bites someone, 911 must be called and that person must get to an emergency room right away.

Snakebites are treatable, however. According to the American Red Cross, of the around 7,000 people bitten by a snake in the United States every year, fewer than five people die.

Fast facts on rattlesnake bite:

  • Rattlesnakes are venomous.
  • Snakes avoid people. They attack if they feel threatened or surprised.
  • A continuing reflex reaction means a snake can still bite several hours after death.
  • If a bite occurs, the area around the wound will swell up and change color.
  • Treatment involves immobilizing the injured body part, cleaning and wrapping the wound, and getting antivenom at a hospital.
  • Without prompt treatment, or if someone has an allergic reaction, rattlesnake bite can be fatal.

Symptoms

Rattlesnake bites can be lethal.
Rattlesnakes usually avoid people, and will only bite when they feel threatened.

Rattlesnake bites are painful. The immediate symptoms include:

  • bleeding
  • difficulty breathing
  • blurred vision
  • eyelid drooping
  • low blood pressure
  • nausea and vomiting
  • numbness
  • paralysis
  • rapid pulse
  • change in skin color
  • swelling
  • tingling
  • tissue damage
  • thirst
  • tiredness
  • weakness
  • weak pulse

Treatment

If a person has been bitten, it is vital to get medical help immediately. The person must be kept calm and given reassurance that the bite can be treated.

What to do

Applying a bandage to the arm and elbow.
Emergency services should always be contacted in the case of a rattlesnake bite. In the meantime, washing and bandaging the bite is recommended.

While waiting for help to arrive, the American Red Cross advises to wash the wound and then apply a bandage to slow the spread of venom. The following steps should be taken when doing this:

  • Check for feeling, warmth, and color of the limb and note any changes in skin color and temperature.
  • Place the end of the bandage against the skin and wrap, using overlapping turns. Start at the point farthest from the heart and cover a long body section, such as an arm or calf. To wrap a joint, use figure of eight turns to support it.
  • Check above and below the bite for feeling, warmth, and color, particularly in the fingers and toes.
  • Check the tightness of the bandage so a finger can still pass easily but not loosely underneath it.
  • Keep the injured area still and make sure it is lower than the heart. The person who has been bitten should only walk if absolutely necessary. Carry them to safety if possible.

Once at the hospital, medical staff will administer antivenom medication.

If the snake is already dead, it should be taken to the hospital to show to doctors so the type, and its venom, can be identified.

Be careful of the head when touching and lifting a dead snake, as it can bite from a reflex reaction for several hours after death.

What NOT to do

When treating snakebite, there are some actions not to take. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, these include:

  • allowing the person who has been bitten to become over-exerted
  • applying a tourniquet
  • applying a cold compress
  • cutting into the bite with a knife or razor
  • trying to suck out the venom
  • giving any stimulants or pain medication unless told to by a doctor
  • giving a person who has been bitten anything to eat or drink
  • raising the site of the bite above the person s heart

Possible complications

Some people can have an allergic reaction to snake venom. This reaction called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock can happen immediately or several hours after a person is bitten. Symptoms include:

  • itchy skin with hives and redness
  • swollen face, lips, tongue, and throat, leading to difficulty breathing
  • a rapid heartbeat
  • nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

If the reaction leads to a drop in blood pressure, it can also cause dizziness, confusion, faintness, cold and clammy skin, and even blindness.

Someone who has been bitten by a snake may also go into shock. This is a medical emergency in its own right and has similar symptoms to anaphylaxis.

Symptoms of shock include:

  • faintness and collapsing
  • pale, cold, clammy skin
  • sweating
  • rapid, shallow breath
  • blindness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • drowsiness or loss of consciousness

If the bitten person is showing symptoms of shock, lay them down and raise their legs. Use a coat or blanket to keep them warm.

How to identify a rattlesnake

Rattlesnakes have a rattle or partial rattle, which is composed of interlocking rings. These rings are made of segments of keratin, which is the same material in human fingernails. When a snake vibrates the segments of keratin, they let off a hissing sound as a warning.

There are 30 recognized species of rattlesnake, ranging from 1 to 7 feet in length. Rattlesnakes have heavy bodies and diamond-shaped heads with a characteristic pit on each side.

They are found across the U.S., Mexico, and South America. In the U.S., they live in the desert sand dunes of the southwest, the swamplands of the southeast, and the meadows of the northeast. They can live anywhere from sea level up to altitudes of 11,000 feet.

In areas where temperatures drop to 40°F or lower, rattlesnakes may hibernate in the winter. Being cold blooded, they will sunbathe on flat surfaces in the open during the day to warm up. In places where daytime temperatures top 90°F, rattlesnakes tend to be more active at night.

Rattlesnake venom

The exact makeup and strength of the venom depend on the species of the rattlesnake and where it lives. The poisonous liquid is injected rapidly, and the snake can control the amount of venom released.

Venom is produced in glands in the snake s upper jaw and is passed through the venom duct before being delivered through the creature s large, hollow fangs.

Prevention

Sign warning of rattlesnake habitat.
Avoiding rattlesnake habitats is the easiest way to avoid getting bitten.

People are advised to avoid areas where snakes may be hiding, such as under rocks and logs. A person should never pick up or provoke a snake, as they will attack if they feel threatened.

When entering an area where it is hard for a person to see their feet when walking, they should tap the ground or foliage ahead of themselves with a stick. Snakes will try to avoid a person if given enough warning. People should wear long pants and boots if hiking in an area where snakes are known to be.

If someone sees a rattlesnake while hiking, they can stay safe with these tips:

  • do not panic
  • stay at least 5 feet away from the snake
  • do not try to kill the snake, as this can increase the chances of it biting you and is also illegal in some states
  • alert others to the snake and advise them to be cautious and to keep children and pets away

Outlook

Most of the 7,000 snakebites in the U.S. each year are from rattlesnakes, but fewer than five people die as a result.

Most of these deaths occur because the person has an allergic reaction, is in poor health, or is unable to get medical attention in time.