Summer Safety Series | Pull on your high-legged boots to protect against rattlesnakes

By Kristy Bleizeffer Jun 20, 2016

Crotalus viridis 02

Crotalus viridis 02" by Gary M. Stolz, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

At Wyoming Medical Center, we may treat zero rattlesnake bites one year and three to four the next. The most Dr. Eugene DuQuette has seen in a single season is eight, and that was during a wet spring that stayed wet late into summer.

Wait a second ... Wet spring? Late into summer? Sounds a lot like 2016.  

Wyoming only has one poisonous snake - the prairie rattlesnake or plains rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis. The best treatment for a rattlesnake bite is prevention. Below, DuQuette, an ER physician at Wyoming Medical Center, walks us through what we should and should not do while playing in snake country this summer.

  • Don’t be sneaky. “Our snakes are not aggressive here. Most strikes are all a reaction to fear,” DuQuette said. Make noise when walking in snake country, particularly in grass where they are hard to spot. They will slither and hide to get away from you. 
  • Know the hot spots: “We see more snake bites in grassy areas, and we see a lot of them at Pathfinder and area ranches,” DuQuette said. Grass makes them hard to see and easier to sneak up on, which is usually when they strike. Don’t dig in burrows where snakes may live.
  • Wear high-legged boots and gloves: Boots can prevent fangs from puncturing the skin or may reduce the amount of venom the snake is able to inject. Gloves, particularly when working around grassy areas, will protect your hands.
  • Leave snakes alone: A good number of bites treated at Wyoming Medical Center are from people trying to catch rattlesnakes. DuQuette has even treated people who’ve tried to catch the rattlers that bit their friend in order to show them to ER physicians. “We don’t need to see the snake,” DuQuette said. “We have only one poisonous snake here. If you heard a rattle, it’s a rattlesnake, and we know how to treat it.”
  • Mind the children: Kids are a lot more susceptible because they have smaller bodies and the venom travels a lot faster. Their small arms and legs make it easier for them to get compartment syndrome, a condition that can develop after trauma to a compartmentalized area which prevents adequate blood supply to muscles and nerves.
  • Watch for the small snakes: The smaller the snake, the more concentrated the venom. If you get bit by small rattlers, seek medical care right away. The seriousness of a rattlesnake bite also depends on how much venom the snake injects. Between 10 and 20 percent of snakes bites are dry, meaning they’ve injected no venom at all.
Prairie Rattlesnake; Roy Wood; 1990

Prairie Rattlesnake;Roy Wood; 1990

If bitten, call 911 immediately: Once in the hospital, medical staff will first determine how serious the bite and determine how much antivenin is needed. Antivenin is only administered in an ER or ICU setting because it can cause allergic reactions. In fact, people who are allergic to pineapples or papayas can’t have antivenin at all, DuQuette said. In those cases, people are treated with supportive care until their bodies dispel of the venom.

Depending on how serious the bite, venom may cause swelling, local tissue and muscle damage and may attack three main bodily systems:

  • Heart/cardiovascular system, causing arrhythmia and shock.
  • Clotting system, affecting your body’s ability to form blood clots, which may cause nose bleeds, bloody stools or vomit.
  • Neurological system: “Our snakes in Wyoming don’t have a whole lot of this, but it can cause paralysis and weakness. Usually this is seen more with Mojave rattlesnakes instead of ours, but theoretically, you could have some neurological changes from bites from ours,” DuQuette said.

If out of cellular service area, don’t suck the venom. If you or a companion is bitten and you can’t call for help, don’t do most of the things you think you should. “Most people do it wrong,” DuQuette said.

  • Do not ‘suck out the venom.’ “Sucking it out is totally dangerous, you should never do it,” he said. You could poison yourself if you get it in your mouth, and you’re likely to cause more tissue damage around the bite. Same is true for suction devices which actually cause more damage than benefit.
  • Do not ice bite area.
  • Do not apply a tourniquet.
  • Keep bitten limbs in neutral position; do not elevate.
  • Keep the victim calm and find a way to transport to the hospital. Have someone in your party go get help or into cell range. By four to five hours, the venom has had time to circulate anywhere in the body, so don’t delay.

Some good news: Snake bites are rarely fatal in the United States. Without antivenin, snake bites have a 2 percent mortality rate and a 0.2 percent with it. In Wyoming, they’re even less fatal because our rattlers aren’t as poisonous as some other snakes in the country.

Wear protective gear, call 911 if bitten, and most people will be fine, despite the wet snake-friendly weather.

Eugene DuQuette D.O.

Dr. Eugene DuQuette has been an emergency physician at Wyoming Medical Center since 2006 and was a resident here from 1999 to 2002. He is board certified in Family Medicine.

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