A few years ago, my family and I were camping at the Gulf State Park. My oldest son Adler was on a hike with his buddies near the camp site and was crossing a log over a small creek. He, of course, fell in and lost his shoes to the suction effect in the mud in the bottom of the creek. After climbing out, he wasn’t worried about the mud on his legs or the mud on his clothes, but was upset about losing his shoes. As a daddy, my job was to climb in the stagnant, wonderfully fragrant creek to dig out his shoes. The whole time I was reaching my hand in the water and moving sticks, debris and other unknown objects, I kept thinking back to my medical training in Birmingham and wondering how quickly I could get to the ER if I got a snake bite. Luckily, snake bites are not very common; however, they potentially are a medical emergency. Today, we will address the common snakes in Alabama, how to tell if they are poisonous or not, and what to do (and what not to do) if you or your child gets bitten!
First, let’s discuss the snakes we have here in the southern half of the state. In terms of the ones you need to really know, the poisonous ones are coral snakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, and of course the various species of rattlesnakes. So, how do you know what the snake is, and if you were bitten, should you freak out? First, the coral snake- it is black with red and yellow stripes and has the most toxic venom in North America. Luckily, they are fairly rare and non-aggressive. But, there is a non-venomous snake with a similar color pattern. Just remember “Red on yellow will kill a fellow, but red on black won’t hurt Jack.” However, I would just stay away.
Next, we group the cottonmouths, copperheads, and rattlesnakes together because of their characteristic triangular or arrow shaped head, the cat-like pupil or eye slit, and a small opening between the eyes and nostrils called the pit. Now, if you are close enough to see these findings, you might as well be headed to the hospital. But, what happens if you get bitten and don’t see the culprit? Look at the bite itself. A poisonous bite typically has two single fang marks, while a non-poisonous bite has a semi-circle pattern that looks like a large smile.
So, you were bitten. What next? As opposed to old Western movies and “what you heard from that dude,” it is not recommended to cut the bite and suck out the poison or take off your belt and apply a tourniquet around the limb. These things don’t remove or delay spread of poison. They only do one thing, and that is waste time while you should have been getting to the ER. So, stay calm, take a picture or remember what the snake looks like and go! There, the ER can give supportive care, fluids, medication and anti-venom if need be to help treat symptoms like low blood pressure and shock.
Another issue is snake bites and pets. My nurse recently found their 3 year old healthy boxer dead outside. The only thing they found was a red swollen area near his upper lip. With all of the recent flooding and water everywhere, snakes have moved closer to your house. So keep an eye open for your kids and your pets.
Did you know that most snake bites in kids occur when they try to handle a snake or pick one up that they think is dead! So, lesson one, don’t touch a snake. Lesson two, remember what poisonous snakes look like. Step three, stay calm and get to the nearest ER of you are bitten. Be sure to check resources at aap.org and jama.org; and in case you were wondering, I found both shoes!