Texas A&M University-Kingsville

A&M-Kingsville Researcher Reminds Public of Precautions to Take in Avoiding, Treating Snakebites

KINGSVILLE - June 13, 2007

Contact: Jason Marton
jason.marton@tamuk.edu or 361-593-4143

Emergency calls reporting snake activity throughout the United States are up this summer, according to antivenom distributor Fougera, and with such an increase, public concern about an increase in snakebites follows suit, bringing with it a lot of inaccurate information.

“Most everyone knows someone who has died in an automobile accident, or various diseases such as cancer, but few of us know persons that have died from snakebites,” said Dr. John C. Pérez, director of the Natural Toxins Research Center (NTRC) at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. “I have been working with venomous snakes for 35 years and still do not know anyone that has died from a snakebite.”

As NTRC director, Pérez leads the center in fulfilling its mission of providing global research, training and resources that will lead to the discovery of medically important toxins found in snake venoms. To carry out that mission, the NTRC studies the venom from some 400 snakes housed in its serpentarium.

  “Keep in mind that more people die from bee stings,” said Pérez, citing the fact that of the approximately 8,000 snake bites that happen in the United States annually, only about 12 result in fatalities. Bee sting deaths in the U.S. number about 50.

All that being said, people still need to take precautions, particularly in South Texas, a region that is home to some of the largest vipers in the nation.

“The rattlesnakes in South Texas are some of the biggest and most aggressive venomous snakes in the United States. This means that they have a lot of venom and sharp fangs to deliver it,” said Perez.

To prevent getting a snakebite, Pérez recommends:

  1. Stay alert and watch where you step and place your hands. 
  2. There is safety in numbers. Try to have someone with you when hiking.
  3. Wear protective hiking gear.
  4. Never handle a venomous snake.  If you leave the snake alone, it will leave you alone.

According to Pérez, snake venom is a very complex mixture of thousands of molecules.  On the bite area, it can cause local pain; tenderness; swelling; erythema, which is abnormal redness of the skin; ecchymosis or ruptured blood vessels that cause a purple discoloration of the skin; tissue damage; and blood-related problems.

Beyond the bite area, effects can include abnormally fast breathing; respiratory failure; abnormally fast heart rate; lowered blood pressure; nausea; diarrhea; weaknesses; and an altered mental state.

Things to do for a snakebite:

  1. Transport the victim to the hospital as soon as possible in a safe manner.
  2. Remove rings and watches.
  3. Have the victim keep the bitten area in a comfortable position.
  4. On most snake bites in Texas (pit vipers), the degree of pain and swelling will be an immediate indicator of the seriousness of the bite.  If there is no pain and no swelling then it could be a “dry” bite in which the snake does not inject its venom.  The victim should go to the hospital for observation.
  5. Identify the snake if possible, since this will help in the type of treatment.  There are only two antivenoms used in the United States - one for coral snakes and another for all other venomous snakes indigenous to the United States.  In many cases, antivenom is not used to treat copperhead bites. 

“Immediate treatment with antivenom is the secret to a successful outcome for a snakebite,” said Pérez. He warns, however, that “antivenom only neutralizes the venom – it does not reverse the damage.”

Another point to be aware of, said Pérez, is the fact that antivenom is produced from antibodies from horse and sheep and can sometimes be the source of allergic reactions. If a victim is allergic to those animals, medical professionals should be notified before an antivenom is administered, so the appropriate precautions can be taken.

Finally, Pérez also noted the significant changes that have taken place through the years in first aid treatment of a snakebite.

Things you should not do to treat a snakebite are:

  1. No incision in the bitten area.
  2. No tourniquets.
  3. No suction.
  4. No electric shock.
  5. No ice.
  6. Never pick up the snake, not even a dead one or its decapitated head.
  7. Do not panic.
  8. Do not take alcohol or drugs.

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