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2011-01-06

Second opinion - Taking charge of your health!

By Lauren A. Langford, MD

Rattlesnakes: watch where you walk - even in winter

Very few people are actually bitten by rattlesnakes, yet because the bite is extremely painful and can be fatal, you should always keep alert and watch where you step or put your hands when you are in the field. Be careful after dark, for on warm nights rattlesnakes are out and about.
Usually you think of rattlesnakes as hibernating all winter, but when we have warm, sunny days - even in January - a rattler will venture out of its den to sunbathe on a rock or hunt for food. Males may be on the prowl for a female. Don't depend on a warning rattle to let you know the snake is awake. When snakes are hunting, they usually don't rattle. And they don't always rattle when they are taken by surprise. Also, the rattle is made of brittle material that can break off or be damaged. Baby rattlesnakes are born without rattles.
The venomous bite has evolved as a tool for hunting and killing their prey. The venom not only kills their prey, but also begins the digestive process by breaking down tissue components. The venom contains nervous system toxins that stop the breathing of the prey. Baby rattlesnakes are particularly dangerous because their venom contains a high level of neurotoxic components that halt breathing.
Symptoms of a snakebite include:
• One or two puncture marks
• Burning, tingling at bite area
• Swelling and bruising at bite area
• Numbness
• Nausea, weakness, dizziness
• Difficulty breathing
First aid for a snakebite includes:
• Washing the bite area with clean water and soap
• Immobilizing the bitten limb
• Keeping the affected limb lower than the heart
• Removing rings, other jewelry and tight clothing immediately if the bite is on the hand
• Getting medical help immediately
How NOT to treat a snake bite
• Do not put ice or any other type of cooling on the bite
• No tourniquets
• No electric shock
• No incisions in the wound
If you cannot get medical help within 30 minutes, wrap a bandage two to four inches above the bite to try to slow venom spread. Do not wrap the bandage so tightly that it cuts off blood supply.
Make the bandage loose enough so that a finger can slip under it. A suction device, available in commercial snakebite kits, may be placed over the bite to help draw venom out of the wound without making cuts.

Pictured: Photo courtesy huntingsociety.org/Rattlerpics

Rattlesnakes don't hibernate all winter long. They'll come out on warm sunny days.