Plus, how to handle rattlesnake encounters and prevent an attack.
Rattlesnakes may often be associated with imagery of the American Southwest, but they are actually found throughout North and South America. While the bite of an adult rattlesnake is rarely fatal to humans if treated properly, it’s important to watch out for the rattler when hiking or otherwise exploring the wilderness to avoid serious injury as well as disturbing the reptiles in their natural habitat.
How to identify a rattlesnake
As their name suggests, rattlesnakes are recognizable by the rattle on the end of their tail. If you’re near a rattlesnake, it will shake its tail and make a rattling noise to warn you to back off. Sometimes though, you may not see the distinct tail. “You may not see the rattle when it’s coiled up, so it could look like any other snake from afar,” says Dr. Cyrus Rangan, Assistant Medical Director at California Poison Control System and Medical Toxicologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Additionally, you may not hear the rattle. In some cases, rattlesnakes have started rattling less to not attract the attention of humans who would kill them. Other key identifiers of the rattlesnake are their two fangs (most snakes just have rows of teeth), as well as the small pit in their head commonly shared among the group of snakes known as “pit vipers.”
What to do if you encounter a rattlesnake
The most important thing when you come across a rattlesnake is to remain calm. “Rattlesnakes are not an aggressive snake. They won’t hunt you down,” says Dr. Elizabeth Fagan, Medical Director of the Emergency Department and Emergency Medical Physician at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in McKinney, Texas. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a rattlesnake bite case where the person wouldn’t leave the snake alone.”
Don’t approach the snake; back up and wait for it to slither away. “You don’t know how the snake feels about you getting too close, and what’s too close is up to the snake, not you,” says Dr. Rangan.
Who and where do rattlesnakes bite?
“The most common age group we tend to see bit is the young adult male, usually drunk. They’re trying to do something macho, or trying to protect their family by moving it,” says Dr. Rangan.
Dr. Fagan concurs. “Seventy-two percent of rattlesnake bites are to males, often intoxicated. Fifty percent occur when the person saw the snake and moved forward,” she says. Of course, it’s not just drunk guys; accidental bites happen all the time. Most rattlesnake bites occur on the foot or hand. Children might pick a rattlesnake up, not knowing what it is; and rattlers sometimes bite people on the foot who don’t realize the snake is nearby.
How dangerous are rattlesnake bites?
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, while there are about 7,000 to 8,000 snake bites annually, and on average only five of those people die. Dangers posed by rattlesnake bites are largely confined to the area of the bite. “You see tissue destruction because venom contains digestive enzymes that snakes use to digest their prey. As it dissolves tissues, the tissues begin to die and that could lead to loss of fingers, toes and sometimes limbs,” says Dr. Rangan. Other complications can ensue due to allergy, other medical issues or poorly-administered self-care.
Baby rattlesnakes are more dangerous than adults
Be especially careful in July and August, as that’s usually when baby rattlesnakes are born. “The babies are born with fully functional fangs and venom sacks and even though their venom sacks are smaller, they don’t modulate the amount of venom they introduce,” says Dr. Fagan. Additionally, baby rattlesnakes don’t get their first rattle until after they’ve initially shed their skin, so you won’t get an auditory warning about their presence.
What to do if you’ve been bitten
If you’ve been bitten, the most important thing is to remain calm. While you may be in pain, you or your hiking companions should contact emergency services and try to get to a hospital. “There’s only one snake bite kit and that’s your cell phone so you can call and get out as soon as possible,” says Dr. Rangan.
It’s fairly easy to tell how severe your bite is. “If you get redness, swelling and pain within a half-inch of the bite, then you actually got venom. If it’s been an hour and you just have two little holes with some redness at the holes but nothing else, it’s probably a dry bite or minimum envenomation,” says Dr. Fagan.
While most bites to humans are dry bites, as rattlesnakes want to scare you off while not wasting their venom on something they can’t eat, it’s still highly suggested you get to a hospital for antivenom just in case. This must be administered within six hours of a bite — so don’t dawdle.
What not to do
There are some commonly-held folk beliefs about what to do when bitten by a rattlesnake, most of which will only lead to further complications. You shouldn’t cut or slice at the wound or use suction devices. Despite what’s claimed, venom will not pour out. “Studies have shown that suction devices don’t actually do much; you’re only going to do more damage to your skin and blood vessels,” says Dr. Rangan.
Other things you should not do include creating tourniquets around the affected limb, as that will cut off blood circulation, or dunking a hand in a bucket of ice. “Rattlesnake venom causes paresthesia, numbness and tingling around the site of the bite. So your sense of pressure and cold aren’t as normal,” says Dr Rangan. If you do put your hand in ice, you could wind up at the hospital with both a rattlesnake bite and frostbite.
Finally, do not try to capture a rattlesnake.“We don’t need the snake,” says Dr. Fagan. “I’ve had patients come in with two bites, one on the leg and the other on the hand because they’ve tried to catch the snake.”
If you’ve been bitten and you or a friend can safely take a photo of the snake, that’s helpful to confirm the species, but not necessary for treatment.
Michael Darling is a journalist in Los Angeles.