Preventing and Responding to Venomous Snakebites

CopperheadMSN student Caitlin Cundiff participated in Dian Evans’ Environmental Emergencies lecture last month, which included information about patient treatment and monitoring after venomous snakebites. Little did she know how quickly she would be employing the evidence-based guidelines and management strategies for treating snakebites that she learned in class. While on her hospital medicine rotation in the Emory University Hospital Emergency Department, Caitlin was called to join a hospital medicine team that was in the process of treating a patient who had been bitten by a three-foot copperhead snake. Caitlin used her training to teach the Emergency Department nurses and hospital medicine staff about how to prepare and use anti-venom and how to monitor patients for progressive envenomation. While this particular patient’s bite was clinically mild and did not require antivenom, medical treatment is always advised to minimize tissue damage the risk of secondary infection.

Snakebites are common in the Southeastern United States, especially during warmer months when snakes are more active and people are spending more time outdoors. Copperheads are particularly abundant in the Atlanta area and are responsible for the majority (50 percent) of venomous snakebites. Copperheads have a copper-colored triangular-shaped head and are usually a tan to copper color with hourglass markings on their back. Their muted colors enable them to blend in well with leaves and bushes, increasing chances of an accidental encounter. While venom from a Copperhead snake is rarely fatal to humans, any venomous snakebite can become serious health emergency.

Keep the following tips in mind to protect yourself and your health.

  • Do not pick up or try to kill venomous snakes. If you see one, walk the other way and call animal control.
  • If you attempt to kill a copperhead, and they look dead, they can still bite and inject venom reflexively. Don’t pick them up!!
  • Copperhead bites are very painful and can cause progressive tissue swelling, bruising and bleeding.
  • The best treatment for a copperhead bite is to immediately get to the nearest emergency department.
  • If bitten on an extremity remove all constricting rings and jewelry, then elevate and extend the limb to reduce swelling and tissue damage around joints.
  • Do not cut a bite wound to try to get it to bleed more or to suck out the venom as this can cause a serious infection and won’t help reduce the venom effects.
  • Do not apply ice or an Ace wrap to the wound as this can worsen tissue damage.
  • Keep track of the time that you were bitten because once you arrive for care in the emergency department your wound will be evaluated for progressive envenomation by measuring the degree of swelling around the wound every 15-20 minutes.
  • Antivenom may need to be given based on how rapidly the bitten area swells and where the bite is located.

For more information on venomous snakes and treatment guidelines, click here.

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