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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Rattlesnake Bites: Avoidance and Treatment

When I was a teenager hiking around the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California, we used to always carry a snakebite kit. It was the thing to do. We never left home without one.

Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)Image via Wikipedia
Image via Wikipedia
The kit was about the size of your thumb. It contained a sharp blade, a tourniquet and two suction cups. It also had a little rolled up piece of paper with instructions to lance the site of the bite, apply a suction cup to draw out the poison and place a tourniquet between the bite and the heart to keep the poison from circulating through the body.
An alternative to the application of suction cups that we all knew about was to simply suck out the poison by mouth and spit it out along with any blood from the cutting of the site. We all boldly affirmed that we would do this for one another but inside we shuddered at the thought – at least I know I did. A human-blood-and-rattlesnake-poison cocktail just didn’t sound that appetizing.
Fortunately, none of us hiking buddies ever had to use the snakebite kit or suck a snakebite site. I don’t even remember seeing or hearing a rattlesnake on the trail.

There are about 30 different rattlesnake species  in the world. At least one species lives in each of the 48 contiguous states of the United States. Their ubiquitous presence would make one think that encountering a rattlesnake would be rather common. But, such encounters are relatively rare.
As is the case with many forms of wildlife, rattlesnakes are not any more anxious to meet humans than humans are to meet them. They hibernate all winter and come out of their dens in March or April to start sunning themselves and hunting rodents and reptiles. The Spring and Fall seasons when rattlesnakes are migrating to and from their hibernation dens is when you would most likely see one.

If you or someone in your hiking party gets bit by a rattlesnake, the first thing to do is to send for medical help. Then help the victim to lie down, and keep him or her calm. Immobilize the site with a splint, but don’t cut off circulation by binding it too tight. If possible keep the site of the bite below the level of the heart. Remove any jewelry at or near the bite site.
Here are some things not to do. Never cut the site, never apply a tourniquet and don’t bother trying to suck out the poison. Such activities, even though they were recommended years ago, are not recommended today because they are virtually ineffective and could cause physical damage.
A rattlesnake bite can be fatal. So, it is nothing to play with. But, it is good to note that less than 1% of all poisonous snake bites in the United States are fatal. Even though a rattlesnake bite does not end up in a fatality, it can make the victim very sick and very uncomfortable.
The best antidote for a rattlesnake bite is to avoid it in the first place. Here are some ways to do that.
While hiking, stay alert to the sight and sounds of rattlesnakes. The rattle at the end of a rattlesnake’s tail makes a distinctive and fairly loud warning sound like a buzz. The rattle, whether detected by sight or sound, is the most definitive feature that positively identifies the rattlesnake. Other features such as size, shape or color vary greatly within the species and can be confused with the same features in other snakes.
So, look for and listen for the rattle. If you detect it, stop and back off slowly. Make no sudden moves. Never approach the reptile. An important piece of information to remember is that a rattlesnake can strike something that is at a distance of two thirds of its body length. In other words, a 6-foot rattlesnake can strike you if you are within 4 feet of it.
Another thing to be aware of is that young rattlesnakes, even babies, can be as deadly as adults.
Keep hands and feet from under bushes, tall grass and large rocks where rattlesnakes like to hide from predators and stay cool during hot summer days. And, wear leather boots and long pants while hiking in the desert where rattlesnakes are very common.
Rattlesnakes are an important part of our wilderness environment. So, we should leave them alone. And, with a little awareness and care on our part while hiking and backpacking, we should be able to avoid them and their potentially deadly bites.

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