I had the unfortunate displeasure of running across a couple of copperhead snakes a couple weeks ago in my neighborhood. This got me thinking about how often venomous snakes affect the health of others in the Commonwealth.
Venomous snake bites are relatively rare and a very uncommon cause of death in the United States. Most fatalities from snake bites, about 95%, are caused by diamondback rattlesnakes in the western part of the country.
The actual number of snake bites in Virginia is difficult to gauge since many bites probably are not even reported. However, historical data show that there are only around 50 hospitalizations per year from snake bites in Virginia. Less than ten people have died of a snake bite in the state in the last ten years.
The three types of venomous snakes in our state include the timber rattlesnake (found only in western mountainous Virginia), the copperhead, and the cottonmouth or water moccasin (found in the southeastern Tidewater area). By far, most bites in our area are from copperheads. Bites generally are more prevalent between April and October when the weather is warm.
These venomous snakes are pit vipers, meaning they have small, heat-sensitive pits between their eyes and their nostril that allows them to sense their prey. The venom of the copperhead is of relative low-potency compared to that of the rattlesnake or cottonmouth. Therefore, bites from a copperhead rarely are fatal or require antivenin therapy. Water moccasins have intermediate-potency venom and rattlesnakes have the highest potency.
Generally, a poisonous snake has a triangular-shaped head. This is because the venom is stored on both sides of the head in venom sacs. The head of a non-poisonous snake is oval, like the shape of your thumb. Also, the pupils of the eyes of a poisonous snake are elliptical, like a cat’s pupils. Pupils of a non-poisonous snake are round.
The venom of Virginia’s poisonous snakes is toxic to human blood and tissues. Symptoms after a snake bite can range from a mild local reaction with pain and redness to severe bleeding and tissue destruction. It depends on the size of the snake; the location of the bite; the amount of venom injected; and the size, age, and health of the victim. Children are more susceptible to dangerous reactions due to their size in relation to the envenomation.
With a copperhead or cottonmouth bite, most will experience intense pain at the site of the bite. Swelling, redness, tingling, and bruising can also occur. The first step in snake bite first aid is to stay calm. Do not approach the snake or try to catch it, but try to remember what it looked like.
Immobilize the extremity and remove any tight clothing or jewelry near the bite wound before any swelling occurs. First aid measures that are NOT effective include applying a tourniquet, applying ice, bleeding the wound, and cutting the wound and sucking out the venom. Tying a loose elastic wrap two inches above the bite to block the vein and lymph flow is recommended only if medical help is more than 30 minutes away. Fortunately, in our area you should have plenty of time to get medical attention before the bite causes a serious danger to your life.
The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.