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Health Team

Poisonous snake bites are rare but serious

Posted September 4, 2008 5:50 p.m. EDT
Updated September 4, 2008 11:40 p.m. EDT

— 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 .