How to avoid rattlesnakes and give first aid

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Source of this article – Moorpark Acorn, May 19, 2005.

By Angelo Salvucci, MD

Now that the rains are over and the weather is warming, the Southern Pacific rattlesnake can be expected to be active. This venomous snake may be found on remote hiking trails as well as in suburban backyards. The snake is generally considered aggressive only when it feels threatened or is surprised. There are several steps to take to prevent being bitten and some important first aid tips everyone should know.

Each year about 15 cases of rattlesnake bite are treated in local hospital emergency departments. Being alert and cautious and giving a rattler clearance if encountered are good ways to avoid being bitten. A rattler may or may not warn with a buzzing sound, and can strike very quickly without any warning. Here are some ways to stay safe:

•Don’t hike alone.
•Bring a cell phone. (Web editor’s note: Don’t expect to have cell service on any trails!)
•Wear hiking boots and long, loose pants to deflect a snake’s fangs.
•Stay on trails and out of high grass or dense vegetation where there is limited visibility.
•Step on, not over, logs and rocks. A snake might be on the other side.
•Look carefully before sitting on a boulder or log.
•If a rattle is heard, locate the snake before proceeding.
•Stay at least 6 feet away from the snake. If hiking with a dog, always keep the pet leashed to avoid an encounter when the dog is roaming loose through brushy areas.
•Most rattlesnake bites are a result of trying to handle or kill the snake. Do not attempt to kill the snake.
•Do not handle an injured or dead snake, especially the head. Fangs can inject venom even after the snake is dead.
•Teach children to stay away from snakes. Their natural curiosity can put them in harm’s way.

In case of a rattlesnake bite, here are some tips to follow:

•Have the victim remain still and calm. Increasing heart rate and circulation will increase blood circulation and spread of the venom. Rattlesnake venom causes tissue swelling over hours to days, so there is time to get to treatment. Don’t waste time or risk another bite by trying to kill the snake for identification. The hospital treatment will depend on the appearance of the wound, not the snake.
•If possible, splint the arm or leg to delay the spread of venom. If the bite is on the arm, hold it below the level of the heart. Because the extremity will swell, remove rings or other constricting bands. Some experts recommend using a Sawyer Extractor or other pump device to apply suction that can remove a portion of the venom if used promptly and if the victim is more than a few minutes away from emergency treatment.

Most of the other treatments found in Boy Scout manuals and older first aid booklets are now believed to be ineffective or even dangerous. Cutting into the bite site only increases the likelihood of infection. Putting ice on the wound can cause frostbite and does not inactivate the venom. Tourniquets will cut off blood supply and further damage tissues. Drinking alcohol has no effect. All of these should be avoided.

The next step is to get to a hospital emergency room promptly. It is far more important, especially for more serious envenomations, to receive antivenin in the hospital than any first aid measure. If the victim cannot get to an emergency room quickly, call 9-1-1. Ventura County Emergency Medical Services teams are always ready to respond and will take the victim to the hospital by ambulance or helicopter.

All of the hospital emergency departments in Ventura County are equipped and prepared to handle rattlesnake envenomations. In one out of every four snakebites, no venom is injected and the victim will not need further treatment. However, if the bite wounds are bleeding and the area is swelling, the victim will be given intravenous antivenin, an antibody that will inactivate the venom.

Salvucci is the medical director of Ventura County Emergency Medical Services.