The hot and dry conditions in Central Texas are impacting our region in many ways, including one that is not especially desirable: Snake bites are up.
General surgeon Ben Coopwood, MD, at the University Medical Center Brackenridge emergency department, has been tracking Central Texas snake bites since he first put together a presentation about them in 2000. He is considered by his colleagues to be the hospital’s resident expert on snake bites.
“In Texas, our perception of snake bites probably came from old Western movies where somebody who got bitten by a rattlesnake generally dropped dead in 30 seconds,” he laughs. “The likelihood of anyone dropping dead in 30 seconds is zero. Snake bites are rarely fatal, although they can be, but are much more likely to cause local tissue destruction, swelling and pain. Anyone bitten on an extremity such as the foot or hand may have significant scarring that can create long-term limitations.”
“I’ve been working in Austin for 14 years and no one has died from a snake bite that I can recall.”
Incident of Snake Bites Growing
Since Dr. Coopwood gathered his first set of snake bite information in 2000, the annual number in Central Texas has been growing, but not like this year.
“When I first began, we were treating an average of 15 to 17 bites a year. Over time, that’s increased to 28 or 29 for the whole year. But this year, we’ve had a spike.”
Thirty-six bites have been recorded just through the end of June. “We think it’s the drought. The growth over time most likely is the result of residential growth, especially into Hill Country neighborhoods closer to snake habitats.”
He speculates the snakes are looking for water because, like all living creatures, they need it to survive. “They don’t need much. Generally they can get enough from the dew on grass. But in this year’s drought conditions, they are finding it in gardens and yards that have been recently watered.”
Generally, there are about 8,000 snake bites recorded across the United States. The most common poisonous snakes in Central Texas include the rattlesnake, copperhead, water moccasin and coral snake.
“The first three are pit vipers and their venom is similar. Venom is injected through the fangs and can cause swelling and local tissue destruction. The bites are treated with antivenin, the antidote to the pit viper venom. It has good effectiveness, excellent for rattlesnakes and very good for copperheads and water moccasins. Coral snake venom acts on the neurological system. Coral snakes have smaller mouths and have to kind of chew a little bit to inject venom. If you see a snake gnawing on you and there is any chance you were bitten, shake it off and get the wound evaluated. Treat all snake bites as if they were poisonous. You don’t want to run the risk.”
What to Do If Bitten
If you or someone else is bitten by a snake, the most important thing to do is remain calm and seek immediate emergency treatment. The following is a list of actions recommended by Dr. Coopwood. •Do immobilize the affected area as soon as possible and get the wound at the level of the heart. “Holding your hand up will distribute the venom through your system faster and holding it down will increase swelling. Lie down if you can.” •Do expect immediate severe pain nd swelling. “Seek emergency care as soon as possible.” •Do get away from the snake. “Many people are bitten twice or a companion is bitten because they are trying to kill or catch the snake. It is not necessary to kill the snake and bring it in. We don’t need to see the snake.” •Don’t apply a tourniquet or cut the wound and suck out the venom. “Those are old wives’ tales in Texas and not recommended.” •Don’t put ice on the wound. •Don’t drive yourself for care. “Call an ambulance or have a friend drive you. Lie down in the back seat.”
The best defense is to avoid snakes altogether if you see them. Most people don’t see the snakes and sometimes step on them or reach into areas where snakes are hiding. The following tips can help keep you and your family safe: •Look where you are walking. •Wear shoes when outdoors, preferably boots if you are in the woods or area of significant vegetation. •Avoid trash, brush or high grass. •Look before you reach into rocky crevices, underneath rocks or around vegetation where you can’t see the ground. •Watch kids and pets, especially in areas where they are going to play. Their smaller size puts them more at risk for the consequences of snake bites.