The report of a possible fatal snakebite that occurred in Carter County on Saturday raises dozens of questions for those of us who treasure time spent outdoors. Let’s address the most pressing question first.
Q: Could this happen to me or someone I know?
A: Snakebite ranks just above falling space debris as a threat to human life.
Now that we have that out of the way and can all breathe normally again, here are some other important questions and answers about snakebite.
Q: How common are snakebites?
A: The Missouri Poison Center recorded 596 venomous snakebites in the seven-year period from 1993 through 1999, or about 85 per year. None of those was fatal. The last documented death from a copperhead bite in Missouri was in 1965. For comparison, consider the frequency of fatalities from different causes in 2002 as reported by Time Magazine:
- Auto accidents, 44,757
- Bicycle, 762
- Pool drowning, 515
- Slipping in ice or snow, 103
- Bee or wasp stings, 66
- Lightning, 47
- Dog attack, 32
- Snakebite, 2
These numbers help put the risk of snakebite in perspective. Staying indoors for fear of being bitten makes even less sense than refusing to swim, bicycle or get in a car.
Q: If nearly 100 Missourians are bitten each year, why don’t more people die of snakebite?
A: For several reasons. First, venom is an important tool, so snakes don’t waste it. Approximately one-quarter of all bites are “dry,” meaning the snake doesn’t inject any venom. This often is because the snake is trying to scare away an intruder, not kill you. Second, medical treatment for snakebite is readily available in Missouri. Third, many venomous snakes simply don’t have enough venom to kill a person. This can be because of the snake’s size or because it recently depleted its venom supply by biting a prey animal.
Q: What venomous snakes live in Missouri?
A: The Show-Me State has five venomous snakes. These are the copperhead, the cottonmouth, and the timber rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnake and massasauga rattlesnakes. The other 30-odd snake species native to Missouri may bite if cornered or handled, but their bites are not dangerous.
Q: Are some venomous snakes more dangerous than others?
A: Yes. Bigger snakes are more dangerous, because they carry more venom. Some species’ venom is more toxic than others. Fortunately, Missouri’s most widely distributed venomous snake, the copperhead, has the least-toxic venom. The toxicity of Missouri snakes’ venom, from most toxic to least, is timber rattler, cottonmouth, pygmy rattler, massasauga and copperhead.
Q: Besides size and species of snake, what factors make a snake bite more or less dangerous?
A: One of the most important factors is personal sensitivity. Some people are more allergic to snake venom, just as some people have a more serious reaction to insect stings. Snake bites are more serious for very young and very old people and those with compromised health. The location of the bite is important, too. Least serious are those to the hands and feet, which is good because that’s where most people are bitten. Not seeking medical attention is a serious mistake. Even if a bite does not deliver enough venom to kill immediately, it can lead to life-threatening infection.
Q: Who is most likely to be bitten?
A: Anyone can be bitten when they accidentally step on a venomous snake. However, most bites occur when people try to catch or kill snakes. The typical snakebite victim is a male between the ages of 17 and 27. Alcohol consumption usually is a contributing factor.
Q: What first aid is recommended for snakebite?
A: If you have one of the old-style snakebite kits with razor blades and suction cups, throw it away. This form of treatment has been found to be ineffective, and cutting on the hands and feet can cause serious damage to tendons. If bitten, take the following actions:
- Move out of striking range of the snake.
- Remain calm and minimize physical activity. Excitement and exercise increase blood flow and spread the venom, if any is present. (Remember, there’s a one-in-four chance you got a dry bite!)
- DO NOT try to capture or kill the snake. Medical treatment will be the same regardless of the type of snake that bit you.
- Remove rings, watches and restrictive clothing in case swelling occurs, and rinse off any venom on the skin around the bite.
- Immobilize the bitten area to minimize venom spread.
- Take the victim to the NEAREST doctor or medical facility. Call for emergency assistance if this will speed up transportation.
- Call ahead to the medical facility so they can have the necessary drugs on hand.
Equally important is what not to do. DO NOT:
- Apply ice to the bite.
- Cut the wound or attempt to remove venom.
- Apply a tourniquet or constricting bands.
- Use an electrical device to shock the bite.
- Drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages.
Q: How can I avoid snakebite?
A: Here are some ways to reduce the already tiny risk of snakebite.
- Learn to identify venomous snakes, and know their habits.
- Never handle venomous snakes.
- When possible, delay work until snakes’ inactive period from November through March.
- Wear boots and heavy trousers when working or hiking in areas where snakes live.
- Wear a heavy, long-sleeved shirt and leather gloves when you must work with your hands around rock piles or other snake habitat.
- Use a pole, rake, stick, etc. to probe snake-prone areas before starting work.
- Work or hike with other people for mutual aid in case of emergency.