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How is a Rattlesnake Bite Treated?

The Northern Pacific rattlesnake is venomous.
Toe rings should immediately be removed after a rattlesnake bite.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2014
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In the US, the most common poisonous snakebites come from rattlesnakes. It is important to point out that bites from these poisonous snakes don’t occur that frequently and typically are not fatal. Much can be done to prevent getting bit by a snake including staying away from areas that snakes are located, and when in snake-laden areas, walking with care and paying attention. People who intend to be in areas where rattlesnakes are common should carry a few things with them. These include a snakebite kit and a cellphone or ham radio.

There is much misinformation on how to treat a rattlesnake bite. Some poor suggestions includes things like bringing the snake to the hospital to identify whether it’s poisonous, using a tourniquet above the rattlesnake bite area to prevent poison from going to other parts of the body, icing the bite, cutting the bite, and sucking out the snake venom. It’s a good idea to throw out all of these suggestions, as they are not recommended by organizations like the Red Cross and most medical organizations.

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Really, the first thing people should do after a rattlesnake bite is to move away from the direction of the snake, as it may still be present. Companions of the snakebite victim should not attempt to chase the snake down or kill it, but should get the bite victim away from the snake. However, they shouldn’t move too far away as the person who has been bit needs to move as little as possible.

Next, the cellphone or ham radio comes in handy. Call for help right away. If the phone doesn’t work, assess the distance to help before deciding whether to move the person who has received a bite. If several people are present, send a few people back for help while leaving at least one person with the bite victim. If alone, it is better to walk to get help if the distance is no more than 30 minutes away.

Another thing that should occur in these early minutes after a rattlesnake bite is to wash the wound with warm soapy water. When people are carrying a snakebite kit, they can use the suction pump inside it to attempt to extract some of the venom, though this has not been proven to be particularly effective. Most important is keeping the area of the bite below the heart, and remaining calm.

Depending on the location of the bite, it may be a good idea to look for any jewelry the victim may be wearing. A bite on the hand suggests removing any rings or bracelets because swelling may cause these to become very tight. Toe rings and anklets should be removed if a person receives a rattlesnake bite on the foot or the leg.

When emergency help arrives at the scene, they may decide to immediately administer antivenin if the person bitten is in immediate danger. Many times this decision to treat with antivenin is held off until a person arrives at the hospital. Emergency medical workers may start an IV and administer pain medication.

At hospitals, most people are treated with antivenin and may be observed for several hours to make certain that they are recovering well, and they may have blood tests or have frequent blood pressure, respiration and pulse checks to assess any complications. Some people might go home that same day, but others may require overnight or longer hospitalization depending upon complications of the bite. Sometimes rattlesnake bites can cause severe tissue damage, and this might require later treatment with things like skin grafts. Treatment can really depend on bite severity, amount of venom injected, and individual reaction.

People who plan to walk alone through areas where there are poisonous snakes should always plan on carrying a cellphone or ham radio, and a snakebite kit. It is particularly important that these folks know where they are, and know the numbers of the nearest agencies that can help them in case of a bite. Obviously avoidance is still the best method, and caution when walking can do a lot to avoid rattlesnake bites. Walkers should be aware at all times of where they’re going and listen for the familiar rattle warning of these snakes so that they can find ways to avoid being bit.

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anon187837
Post 2

Did some land surveying over the last two weeks and almost stepped on two timber rattlesnakes at Briery Branch Dam, Rockingham County near Harrisonburg, Va.

I'm hoping I don't get bit on my next visit, since the closest hospital is about 45 minutes away and no cell service in that area. My question is were you able to drive after you were bitten? And how are you doing?

anon40413
Post 1

Actually, many hospitals do require the snake to come in with the victim. They need to verify the type snake to administer the proper antivenin. They also X-ray the snake to check and see how recently the snake has eaten. It the snake has attacked and eaten it's food recently it will have less venom. We just went through this last night. The snake was a timber rattlesnake. The hospital did ask for the snake.

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