Poisonous snakes. Mention those words, and a lot of people freak out. When I told my co-workers I wanted to write about snakebites, one flinched and shrieked, “Ew, snakes!” Another refused to look at the copperhead photo in this post.
But snakes aren’t as big a threat as we think they are, and it’s likely the snake you saw in your yard last week wasn’t even poisonous.
Over 31,000 people in Virginia last year called the Blue Ridge Poison Center seeking advice for poison exposures. Of those, only about 80 calls were related to poisonous snakebites.
I asked Kristin Wenger, the Poison Center’s public education coordinator, to answer some common questions about poisonous snakes.
What types of poisonous snakes do we have in Virginia?
We have four poisonous snakes. We have the timber rattlesnake, which you can find in the mountainous regions of central and western Virginia.
We also have the water moccasin, which is sometimes called the cottonmouth, and the canebrake rattlesnake. They live down in the southeastern tip of the state.
But the snake that’s the most common is the copperhead, found throughout the whole state. Since there are so many of them around, there are more bites because there are more encounters.
How can you tell if a snake is poisonous?
There are a lot of ways. Most of them involve getting very close to the snake though, so we don’t advise that.
All of our poisonous snakes in Virginia are in the same family, so they have a lot of similar characteristics. They have oval-shaped pupils, like a cat, whereas non-poisonous Virginia snakes have round pupils just like people do.
Also, Virginia’s poisonous snakes are in the pit viper family, so they have heat-seeking pits on their heads. These create sort of a wide-jawed look like an arrowhead or a triangle. Non-poisonous snakes in Virginia have more oval-shaped heads.
But this can be very misleading. Sometimes the way the snake is lying, it looks like it has one kind of head shape, but it actually doesn’t. When snakes are babies, it can be very hard to tell what shape their head will be when they’re fully grown.
And of course, you can learn what a snake’s color and scale pattern looks like. But again, that can be misleading. If they’ve just molted or are about to molt, or if they’re not very healthy, they can look different than the nice perfect pictures that you find in books and on websites.
Even if you think that it’s a nonpoisonous snake, you still shouldn’t touch it.
Where are you most likely to find a snake?
If you were a snake, you would want to stay hidden from your predators and sneak up on your food. So that means you’re going to look for tall grass, leaves, underbrush, debris or rocky places where you can crawl in and out of nooks and crannies. Rocks are a great place to find snakes because they’re cold-blooded, so they warm their bodies by sunbathing.
One of the best ways to keep snakes away from your house and yard is to keep your grass mowed. Don’t let debris like leaves pile up, where snakes can hide from their predators and prey.
What can you do to prevent snakebites?
Most people are bitten because they were trying to catch or kill the snake. Others don’t see the snake until they’re too close, and the snake reacts by trying to defend itself.
If you see a snake, just give it a wide berth. Leave it alone. Stay about 6 feet away. Don’t throw anything at it. Don’t poke it. Don’t try to catch it. Don’t try to kill it. Just leave it alone.
How can you help a poisonous snakebite victim until that person can get to the hospital?
The best thing you can do is keep them calm until they can get to the doctor and receive appropriate medical care.
Don’t believe everything you see in the movies! Some of the things people do in the name of first aid actually cause more problems.
You don’t want to:
- Put ice on the bite
- Use a tourniquet
- Cut or suck out the venom
- Give the victim alcohol to drink
One of the most dangerous things that people do after a snakebite is try to get close to the snake to see what it was. You’d be surprised how often that results in a second bite.
If a nonpoisonous snake bites you, should you still see a doctor?
If you’re 100 percent sure that it’s a nonpoisonous snake, you don’t necessarily need to go see the doctor. You should always wash the bite wound with soap and water because the wound can still get infected. You should also contact your primary care physician to find out if you need a tetanus booster shot, because it is possible to get tetanus from a snakebite.
Otherwise, unless you’re having some pain, swelling or redness or any other sign of infection or problems, you don’t need to go. Now, if you’re not sure whether or not the snake was poisonous, you may want to consider going to see the doctor because there are some rare cases where people were injected with venom but their symptoms were delayed. It’s not that common, but it does happen.
The reverse is true, too. Sometimes people are bitten by a poisonous snake and the snake, even though it breaks the skin, doesn’t inject any venom into their body. That’s called a dry bite, and it happens about 20 percent of the time.
Certainly, if you’re not sure what to do, call the Poison Center anytime, day or night, and describe the snake and your symptoms as best as you can.
Make sure to keep to keep the Poison Center’s number handy. Calling 1.800.222.1222 in the United States will get you to the nearest Poison Center.