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Summertime Series: Snakebites

Snakes are of particular concern in the warmer months in Wyoming, especially the venomous kind. However, prairie rattlesnakes - which are the sole venomous snakes found around this area - are a part of our rural environment in our high plains desert. So, knowing what to do should you encounter a rattling danger noodle could save your life or the life of a loved one. We have the down low on the low down rattlesnake and what you need to know as we get through the warmer months.

Little rattlesnakes often are thought to be more potently dangerous than their larger kin, but it's just not so. "The severity of the bite, location, and the age and health of the victim is the determining factor," shared Robynn Scheehle of Memorial Hospital of Converse County's Emergency Department. They may strike at any time, and any snakebite should be looked at as quickly as possible."

The physiology of the prairie rattler is changing. While most of us realize we are in danger when we hear that signature buzz nearby, that's not always the case. "Biologists are noting that more and more rattlesnakes in the Rockies region have developed an atrophied portion of their tail which makes them a bit more aggressive because they don't have the rattle as a defense mechanism. So if you are out in the long grass or anywhere outside really, it's best to always be aware of your surroundings," advised Scheele

This point leads us to the next myth, if you or someone you know is bitten, don't cut the wound, use a tourniquet, or give the patient OTC meds like Benadryl, or try to suck out the venom. "Field triage isn't going to be nearly as effective as getting the patient to an emergency room as quickly as possible," continued Scheele. Many have good intentions for wanting to help a friend or family member, but to put it simply, "the clock is ticking for our teams to do a wound analysis and begin administering anti-venom if necessary." If you want to help, "remain calm, call 9-1-1 and get the patient to the nearest medical team in a calm, safe, and expedient way." The goal is to not drive or transport the patient in an erratic or unsafe way, but to arrive safely and to keep the victim as calm as possible to prevent complications.

There are some symptoms you can monitor for in the patient while getting them to emergency personnel:

  • Swelling and redness around the wounds.
  • Pain at the bite site.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Vomiting and nausea.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Sweating and salivating.
  • Numbness in the face and limbs.

Other items you can attend to:

  • Remove or cut away any constricting clothing and jewelry and immobilize/splint the extremity in the position of function, i.e., slightly bent.
  • Circle the affected area around the bite site with a permanent marker and write the time as it is critical to know how much it is swelling.
  • Keep the bitten area below the patient's heart.

Once the patient is received by EMTs or at the Emergency Department, they will have an exam, and then if necessary, the team will administer anti-venom. Anti-venom is an essential factor in stopping any tissue damage. "The pharmacy is notified if we have an incoming snake bite to be on standby," shared Joy Johnson, director of MHCC's pharmacy. "We currently have some vials of the antivenom CroFab on hand and work with the ED physicians to determine a dose and course of action with the drug." Once dosed, the Emergency team transfers the patient to a hospital with higher care for observation.

While the snakes in our area will be more active in these warmer months, it is essential to keep aware of your surroundings and make safe choices when out and about in our wonderful state. Here are some things you can do to avoid snake bites, according the National Forest Service:

  • Wear appropriate over-the-ankle hiking boots, thick socks, and loose-fitting long pants when out in the wild. Never go barefoot or wear sandals when walking through wild areas.
  • When hiking, stick to well-used trails if all possible.
  • Avoid areas with tall grass, weeds, and heavy underbrush where snakes may hide during the day.
  • Look at your feet routinely to watch where you step, and do not put your foot in or near a crevice where you cannot see.
  • Do not step or put your hands where you cannot see, and avoid wandering around in the dark.
  • If a fallen tree or large rock is in your path, step up onto it instead of over it, as there might be a snake on the other side.
  • Be especially careful if climbing rocks or gathering firewood.
  • Check out stumps or logs before sitting down, and check items left outside before use.
  • Do not turn over rocks or logs. If you must move a rock or log, use gloves and roll it toward you, giving anything beneath it the opportunity to escape in the opposite direction.
  • Never grab "sticks" or "branches" while swimming in lakes and rivers. Reminder: rattlesnakes can swim.
  • Avoid approaching any snake you cannot positively identify as a safe species.
  • If you hear the warning rattle, move away from the area and do not make sudden or threatening movements in the snake's direction. Remember, rattlesnakes do not always rattle before they strike!
  • Do not handle a freshly killed snake - it can still inject venom.