I could easily have been a statistic: Already this year in North Texas 25 people have reported being bitten by a snake. That’s two more than at this same time last year and 13 more than in 2014. The weather is most likely responsible for the increase in snakes, with heavy rains last spring followed by a relatively mild summer and winter and now … more rain.
As it is, I’m forever grateful to a “gentleman” rattlesnake I encountered once while collecting firewood in North Texas. I was in a mowed, wooded area between the office where I worked and a residential tract, happily filling a canvas bag with kindling on my lunch break. Head down, intent only on finding the next stick, I heard the ominous rattle and froze. Looking up, I saw it coiled impressively beneath a tree not 20 feet in front of me.
My heart nearly stopped; this was the biggest snake I’d seen outside a zoo and its message was clear. I set down the bag, backed away slowly, then turned and ran. Our building manager (who sternly informed me the area was a known rattler hangout) called a snake removal expert, but they didn’t find it.
My heart still wobbles when I think about that day. I’m just so grateful I wasn’t bitten. I wouldn’t have known what to do. Would you? Whether you’re on a family campout or chilling in the backyard, here’s how to keep a snakebite from landing you in the emergency room and what to do if one does.
The ABCs of Not Getting Bit
Snakes are generally harmless to humans unless startled or cornered. Most bites happen when people accidentally step on or near one. Follow these ABCs to prevent snakebites:
- AVOID snake habitats, such as tall grass, fallen logs and rock outcroppings, under piles of leaves and burrowed in sandy banks and rotting logs along waterways.
- BE STILL if you encounter a snake; allow the snake to retreat. If you must move, BACK AWAY SLOWLY.
- CLOTHING can make all the difference. Always wear shoes outside and snake-proof trousers or tall boots if snake habitats can’t be avoided.
DOs and DON’Ts of Surviving a Snakebite
Venomous snakebites require immediate medical attention, but how you react in the minutes or hours after getting bitten is crucial. Antivenin is generally most effective within the first 4 hours and usually ineffective after 8-10.
- Call for help immediately.
- Arrange for transport to the nearest hospital ER, which should have local antivenin.
- Stay calm and still. Lie down if possible, with the bite site at body level.
- Remove tight clothing, rings, bracelets, watches and other items that may be problematic if swelling occurs.
- Apply pressure to the bitten area but don’t restrict chest movement or breathing.
- Clean the bite with soap and water, if possible.
- Try to identify the species of venomous snake, but only if safe to do so. Local antivenin is designed to treat wounds from all venomous species in the area.
- Try to suck (or cut) out the venom. This treatment is a myth and could further damage tissue around the bite, spread the venom more quickly, or even poison the person giving aid.
- Apply a tourniquet or ice. Once in the body, snake venom spreads rapidly and is impossible to stop.
- Elevate the bite area above the heart. This causes the poison to circulate faster.
- Ingest anything — especially stimulants or blood thinners such as coffee, alcohol, soda, aspirin and cigarettes.
- Pick up or try to capture the snake. Even dead snakes can bite and inject venom via muscle contractions.
Trent Boyko, Emergency Medical Director of ER at Grand Prairie, gives advice about treating snakebites after treating a patient and sending him to Medical Center of Arlington for overnight observation.
The weather is most likely responsible for the increase in snakes, with heavy rains last spring followed by a relatively mild summer and winter and now … more rain.
Know Your Neighbors: North Texas’ Reptilian Residents
Most local snakes are harmless to humans and may even help control other pests, but you should learn to identify our 4 venomous vipers:
- Rattlesnake. The most common and widespread venomous snake in Texas is the Western diamondback, identified by its brown, diamond-shaped markings and alternating black and white tail rings. It’s a myth that rattlers always warn before striking, and a startled one definitely won’t. They prefer dry land areas that are neither too sparse nor too heavily wooded, such as the rocky areas around Cedar Hill. Adults average 3.5 to 4.5 feet.
- Copperhead. Identified by their flashy banded pattern and tawny coloring, these snakes are most often found in wooded habitats, such as the hardwood bottomlands in east Texas, isolated woody patches in the Trans-Pecos and scattered throughout central and western Texas. Like most snakes, they are not typically aggressive unless provoked. Adults average about 2 feet.
- Cottonmouth (water moccasin). Marked with wide, dark bands that deepen with age, cottonmouths are often found coiled at the edge of bodies of water or draped loosely in overhanging vegetation. When threatened, their mouths open, revealing the white tissue from which they get their name. Adults average 3.5 feet.
- Coral snake. Identified by wide, alternating bands of black and red separated by narrower yellow bands, the coral snake is responsible for a rhyme used to distinguish it from other similar, non-venomous snakes, including Texas scarlet snakes and Louisiana and Mexican milk snakes. Red touch yellow kills a fellow; red touch black, friend of Jack. It prefers rock crevices or plant cover and can be found in a wide variety of urban, suburban and other habitats, including Cedar Hill. A coral snake will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation, including faking its own death.
What Bit Me?
Reactions to venomous snakebites are typically immediate, painful and severe, but not always. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, coral snake bites can be painless at first, with major symptoms developing hours later.
Rattlesnake, cottonmouth and copperhead bites are instantly painful. Symptoms are immediate and may include:
- Bleeding from the wound
- Blurred vision
- Breathing difficulty
- Increased thirst
- Low blood pressure
- Nausea and vomiting
- Numbness and tingling
- Skin color changes
- Weak and/or rapid pulse
I’m thankful that my rattlesnake encounter turned out to be nothing more than a scary and lasting lesson about staying alert to my surroundings. If yours goes beyond that, you’ll be glad to know that most snakebite victims recover completely with proper medical care.
When the unexpected happens, trust Medical City Healthcare, with 17 emergency locations with FastERTX average wait times posted online, to have the anti-venom you need. Visit FastERTX.com to find the Medical City Healthcare ER nearest you.
Becky Frusher and her husband, Ron, have raised two kids and a number of cats to adulthood. Currently a health writer, Becky enjoys cycling, British TV series and movies from nearly every era and genre.