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Summertime Can Mean Snakebites

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Due to wet weather and heat, news reports have families on alert: snakes are being pushed out into the open.  More snakes mean the potential for more snakebites.  I have never treated a patient with a snakebite and thought they were quite uncommon. Unfortunately, a rattlesnake bit a friend of mine (they are out of the hospital and doing well) so upon review I have learned a lot more about venomous snakebites.

There are actually over 45,000 snakebites reported in the U.S. each year. The majority of these are due to non-poisonous snakes and often requires little or no treatment. The days of the old Cowboy movies showing rope tourniquets being applied to the area of the bite and the cutting and “sucking” of the venom are over! Don’t start practicing “movie medicine” if you find yourself dealing with a snakebite.

There are about 8,000 venomous snakebites reported each year. Fortunately, with these large numbers and the advent of anti-venom, only six to eight people die each year secondary to a venomous snakebite. Unfortunately, due to their smaller size, children do not handle snakebites as well as adults, and the fatality rate is higher in children. In the U.S. 99% of poisonous snakebites are by the subfamily pit viper, which includes rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths (YUCK). The other species of poisonous snake found in the U.S. is the coral snake.

I am not going to detail the specific treatment for each type of bite, but if a snake bites your child the first thing to do is to determine if it was a poisonous snake. Non-poisonous snakebites cause minimal pain, no swelling and really only require local wound care with irrigation and antibacterial soap.

If the bite is thought to be from a poisonous snake the child should be transported to the nearest hospital. Do not put a tourniquet around the bite, apply ice or suction the area of the bite as these are all thought to cause more tissue damage than benefit. Pit viper bites typically cause symptoms of swelling, bruising and progression within minutes of the bite.

Children typically have more severe symptoms with nausea, vomiting, sweating, muscle weakness and clotting abnormalities, all of which are a medical emergency. Anti-venom should be delivered within four hours of the bite and will be given until improvement in systemic symptoms is achieved. All of this is done in the ICU setting.

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow.

Send your question or comment to Dr. Sue right now!

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