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Health Team

Poisonous snake bites are rare but serious

Posted September 4, 2008

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— In North Carolina, about 5,000 snake bites happen each year. While death from a snake bite is rare, it is still potentially a serious problem.

Justin Miller, of Raleigh, encountered a snake in his back yard on Aug. 6. While going outside to feed his dog, he grabbed the dog’s bowl with his hands and was bitten by a snake.

“I picked it up and I felt something grab the side of my finger,” Miller said.

Miller thinks it was a copperhead snake that bit him. He said he knew the snake was poisonous because his finger immediately began to swell.

“I would say it just felt like my hand was on fire,” Miller said.

He went to Rex Hospital’s emergency room.

“Generally in this area it's almost always pit vipers. They're all treated the same,” Dr. Karen Hunt, a physician in the Rex emergency department.

Pit vipers include copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes, Hunt said.

She said “most snake bites do quite well without any intervention at all” because often snakes do not release their venom when they bite. For venomous bites, like Miller’s, anti-venom called Crofab may be used. One vial of Crofab costs $4,000.

“I wound up needing six vials of anti-venom,” Miller said.

During Miller’s five days in the hospital, his blood pressure shot up and he said he was in danger of losing his finger and possibly his hand before the anti-venom began to work. He said he is thankful insurance helped cover the $44,000 hospital bill. Miller continues to gets regular hand therapy.

Outdoor trips will never be the same, Miller said.

“I’m walking outside – anything I touch outside, I definitely look twice,” he said.

Hunt warns, "The pit vipers are the more aggressive of species of snake, but if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone." Often, though, bites can't be avoided.

About 36 different snake species exist in North Carolina, but only six are venomous: coral snake, copperhead, cottonmouth (or water moccasin), and three types of rattlesnakes - the pygmy rattler, the eastern diamondback and the timber rattler.

If a snake bites, it is not necessary to bring the snake to the hospital. Anti-venom, if needed, will work for most snake bites you get in North Carolina. The affected limb should be kept in a neutral position until the person can get to an emergency room.

Experts say some older first aid measures are NOT recommended. Now they say:

  • Don’t put ice on the wound.
  • Don’t try using a tourniquet to stop the flow of venom.
  • Don’t cut the wound with a knife and try to suck out the venom .
16 Comments

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  • Daikon Sep 8, 2008

    There absolutely ARE cottonmouths in Wake county, as they are all over the state. The species is viable as far north as Virginia, and is common throughout the entire south. the problem is that every snake near the water is looked upon as a cottonmouth, and executed. These snakes are very valuable in controlling rodent population, and will only bite if provoked. Incidentally, by nature, almost all varieties of water snake are aggressive to a degree.

  • lma1973 Sep 5, 2008

    Exactly. There are NO Cottonmouths in Wake county. There are water snakes though that look very much like them and are extremely aggressive as well, but they arent cottonmouths. In fact mimicing cottonmouths is their defense mechanism. Kinda like how a coral snake and a scarlet king look very much alike. One is highly poisonous and the other is not. Again-NO cottonmouths in this area. Go 30 miles east of there though and you start to get in their western most habital range.

  • jdag Sep 5, 2008

    I think I was accidentally cut off. If not, let me know and I'll fill in the prvevious portion.

    After being bitten, had the Laurel and Hardy moment, and the doctor with the trash can event, In the middle of the night, I woke up seeing a large black shadow hovering over me. Scared me to death! Turns out, it was just the nurse taking vital signs. But I swear I levitated out ot the bed.

    I was on crutches for a month.

    Needless to say, I never go out barefooted again.

  • clintoflannagan Sep 5, 2008

    "There are cottonmouths all over Wake and Durham county. Go to any pond or lake at night and look around. Telling people otherwise is completley foolish and ignorant advice. I somewhat agree about the Coral Snake and rattlers but don't take anything for granted.WIth all of the construction and destruction of our environment these animals are on the move. I personally know 3 people who have been bitten by Cottenmouths, all in Durham County over the past 30 years."

    rgb: If you don't believe me call the herpetology department at the museum and you'll see that I'm right. There are snakes that look almost exactly like cottonmouths that are in our lakes and ponds. It's called mimicry. They are common water snakes. I consider myself rather skilled at identifying snakes and when I'm down east where there are cottonmouths even I have to look twice to be sure. But it is accurate that there are not any cottonmouths or rattlesnakes or coral snakes in Wake County.

  • Gab Sep 5, 2008

    I live in Wake county and I don't do my daily walk if I can't get it done before twilight. I've been out walking before and almost walked on a snake stretched out on the sidewalk. I guess they come out around twilight to hunt.

  • dukearama Sep 5, 2008

    Copperheads will not be in the water.. I am an avid fisherman and I know my snakes.. The eastern watersnake has markings just like a copperhead, and tend to be aggressive, but are not poisonous. As for cottonmouths, it is highly unlikely to encounter one in Durham or Wake county. Check the NC state website, no documented encounters in the area

  • tgw Sep 5, 2008

    Poisonous snakes are no fun at all. and yes, they are here. We may not see cottonmouths in Wake Co., but I know they are Johnston Co. Where they are most prevolent are in the swamps of S-E Noth Carolina. Same with gators!!

    Both are capable of rendering a very painful and memorable bite.
    Yes, memorable-you will remember for a long time-will be a story you share with grand children!!!

  • duwbit Sep 5, 2008

    I don't think the author was saying we have all 6 types of poisonous snakes in Wake County.

    The way I read it, he correctly stated that they all inhabit North Carolina, not just Wake County.

  • rgb Sep 5, 2008

    There are cottonmouths all over Wake and Durham county. Go to any pond or lake at night and look around. Telling people otherwise is completley foolish and ignorant advice. I somewhat agree about the Coral Snake and rattlers but don't take anything for granted.WIth all of the construction and destruction of our environment these animals are on the move. I personally know 3 people who have been bitten by Cottenmouths, all in Durham County over the past 30 years.

  • rlewis Sep 5, 2008

    To add to my earlier comment, we knew it was a cottonmouth because 1) the thing literally came after us.. I've never seen anything like that before. we first saw it in the water and the next thing we knew, it was in the boat coming after us. And 2) when we tried to fend it off with our fishing poles, it gaped its mouth open--showing the white mouth--and kind of feinted like it was going to strike. It looked like it was trying to decide whether it wanted to go after me or my buddy. We finally got him off the boat by kicking an empty cooler towards him.

    Scared the mess out of me. It's a good thing it finally retreated. Fighting with a poisonous snake on a small boat... That would not have been a good situation.

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