Many people who grew up in the south were told that, if threatened by a rattlesnake, they should cut off its head.
This week, a Texas man did just that. He decapitated a rattlesnake and, thinking it was dead, picked up the head – only to have the head bite him. The man nearly lost his life.
“Snakes have really low metabolic rates, and when you decapitate them, you don’t immediately kill them,” says Medical Toxicologist Spencer Greene. He is the director of medical toxicology and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
“They’re going to maintain a lot of reflexes for up to nine hours – that’s the record – and it’s entirely possible for them to bite if something comes in close proximity to their mouths.”
As for the Texas man who was bitten, Greene says, “This was a completely avoidable situation.” He says snakes “don’t want to attack you, they don’t want to hurt you. Had he done nothing, he’d be fine.”
Greene says there is no reason to kill a snake if you see one on your property or in the wild. “Snakes play a vital role in the ecosystem and they’re used medicinally for a variety of things…. If you don’t want a snake on your property, there are people who can remove the snake safely.”
According to the Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas has one of the highest numbers of venomous snake species in the country. Texas has multiple species of rattlesnakes, in addition to copperheads and water moccasins (also known as cottonmouths). Collectively, these are known as pit vipers and their envenomations are all very similar.
Texas coral snake, meanwhile, are “a completely different animal, both literally and figuratively,” Greene explains.
“When you get a rattlesnake or any pit viper envenomation, those bites are typically characterized by a lot of tissue damage, a lot of bruising, a lot of potential hepatotoxicity, and on occasion some neurological toxicity. Bites from coral snakes are completely different in that the local damage is minimal. I mean there’s no bruising, there’s no significant swelling, but what they have is significant pain, often of a neuropathic quality, like getting an electric shock.”
The real risk with coral snake venom “is that it can progress all the way to skeletal and respiratory muscle paralysis. People can stop breathing.”
An Alabama man recently had to be put on a mechanical ventilator because of a coral snake envenomation.
Every year, two to three Texans die from the bites of poisonous snakes.
If you or a family member are bitten, Greene says the best thing you can do is call 911 and get to a hospital.
“Most of what was proposed in the past has been shown to be useless and even dangerous,” Greene says.
“So there are a lot of things you should not do. You should not tie off a tourniquet. Tourniquets are great for people who are bleeding to death and that’s it,” he says. “You should not apply any constriction bandage or any sort of pressure or immobilization. You should remove constrictive clothing and jewelry. You should not cut and suck. You should not try to cut the site without sucking. You should not apply ice for any prolonged period. You should not try to use electric shock, you shouldn’t do olive oil.”
Instead, the important thing is to get the snakebite victim to the appropriate facility.
“If you’re having life-threatening symptoms you get to the closest hospital, and get stabilized,” Greene says. “Otherwise, you get to a place that has expertise in managing bites, because these things can be made worse with improper medical care.
“And the good thing is you can always locate a snake bite expert by calling the Poison Center. 1-800-222-1222. And they can direct your care. They can tell you were to go for the best treatment. And they can provide advice to the local hospitals,” Greene says.
Numbers to know
–If you’re bitten by a snake, call 911 and get to a hospital.
–Locate a snake bite expert by calling the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222.
–If you need a snake removed from your property, call your local animal control.
Written by Rachel Taube.