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What to do if you or someone you are with gets bitten.
By Walt Timmerman

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
May–June 2004

Of the ten snake species that live in Montana, only the prairie rattlesnake is venomous. Also known as the western rattlesnake, the prairie rattler is found in open, arid country and ponderosa pine savannahs. It often dens on south-facing slopes in areas with rock outcrops.

rattlesnakeRattlesnake bites are extremely rare. Of the hundreds of thousands of hunters, hikers, and backpackers traversing Montana each year, only five or six report being bitten, according to the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver. The center also notes there was not a single death among the 45 reported prairie rattlesnake bites in Montana during the last eight years.

The prairie rattlesnake is a medium-sized species with venom glands that harbor only moderate amounts of venom. I have talked to many people whose pet dogs and even pet cats have survived bites by this snake.

Nevertheless, prairie rattlesnakes have the ability to deliver a dose of venom lethal to an adult human. That’s why anyone who spends time outdoors in Montana should have at least a passing awareness of snake-bite first aid.

Rattlesnakes are shy, retiring creatures. If left alone, they won’t bother people. But if a rattlesnake thinks it will be stepped on or otherwise harmed, it may bite. These snakes are armed with a pair of hollow, hinged fangs that fold back against the roof of the mouth. A rattlesnake strikes most often on the hand, calf, or ankle, leaving one or two small fang marks. When bitten, a person will likely feel intense pain at the bite area. Other symptoms may include difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, swelling, and gangrene.

Though it’s rare these days for someone to die of snakebite, it does happen. No wonder that in the panic that follows a snakebite, victims may consider bizarre remedies. These questionable measures, still repeated by Uncle Al at the annual family picnic, include treatment with ice or electric shock, the use of tourniquets to cut off blood circulation, and cutting and sucking the wound.

None of these homespun treatments are recommended by snakebite experts, and some may cause even more harm than the snakebite itself. For example, cutting a victim can cause severe pain, massive bleeding, and infection; tourniquets can cut off blood supply to the extent that gangrene sets in.

I’m not a physician, nor am I licensed to dispense medical advice, but the following simple first-aid steps are recommended by snakebite experts:

Get professional medical care as soon as possible after any venomous snake-bite. If a phone is nearby, call 911 and request help. Try to get the victim to a hospital within three hours (though a snakebite victim should not run).

The victim should be kept calm, and exertion should be avoided. Physical activity increases absorption of the venom.

Immediately remove rings, bracelets, and other constricting jewelry or clothing.

Immobilize the bitten limb with a splint or sling (applied loosely so circulation is not cut off) and keep it lower than heart level.

Walk the victim at a steady but relatively slow pace back to a vehicle, or to a place where an ambulance or helicopter can be met. Keep the victim’s heart rate as low as possible to slow the spread of the venom. If possible, use a horse, ATV, or litter to carry the victim.

Years ago, the antivenom used for snakebite often caused hives or, in extreme cases, deadly anaphylactic shock. But times have changed. Clinical trials of the antivenom now used by medical professionals have demonstrated it to be as effective as the old brand but much safer. Only trained professionals should administer antivenom.

To keep from getting bitten in rattlesnake country, wear leather boots and keep your hands away from rocky ledges, wood piles, brush, or other places rattlesnakes frequent. Carry a cell phone so you can call 911 immediately. Before heading out, review the first-aid steps listed above.

Rattlesnakes play an important role in the balance of nature. Each year they consume millions of rodents, which can become agricultural pests and spread disease such as hantavirus. Unless a rattlesnake has invaded your backyard and poses an immediate threat to you, your family, or your pets, don’t kill it. Enjoy watching this fascinating snake from a distance and let it be.Bear bullet

Walt Timmerman, chief of the FWP Parks Division Recreation Bureau, worked in Florida for the legendary herpetologist, Ross Allen, handling live rattlesnakes for educational programs. He has been bitten only twice by venomous snakes—once by an Egyptian cobra, a “dry” (venomless) bite, and once by a cottonmouth, which sent him to the hospital for three weeks.