Tips for dealing with a Rattlesnake Bite: Quick Tips to Save a Life

By CLAY SPRINGMEYER

When I was a kid, I went on a road trip with my folks and a friend to Bannack, Montana. Bannack was once the territorial capital of Montana back in 1863, but after gold mining dwindled in the area it became a ghost town and eventually a State Park.

It was a hot summer day, and we went for a walk up towards the old Bannack Cemetery. The cemetery sits at the top of a hill just east of the old gallows, the final punishment for outlaws of the old west. The road was dusty and steep. The weather was that choking kind of high desert heat that makes you woozy and lightheaded. We walked, one foot after another, allowing ourselves to take in the peaceful silence and beautiful mountains around us. I didn’t even hear the rattle and hiss from below me.

Bannack, MT

Bannack, MT Photo courtesy ofWikipedia.

My friend shouted at me, told me to stop, and yelled:

“Rattlesnake!”

I froze in my tracks and looked at the ground. Sure enough, an adolescent rattler sat curled, ready to strike, rattle shaking at me like a fist. One more step and surely I would have been bitten. I slowly backed away. More than likely, I owe my pal Dylan my life. Adolescent rattlers have a tendency to release all of their venom upon biting, as opposed to older snakes that typically only release venom 30% to 40% of the time.

According to a study entitled “Venomous Snakebite: Past, Present, and Future Treatment Options” by Drs. James Blackman and Susie Dillons:

There are approximately 2,700 species of snakes worldwide, of which about 375 are considered venomous. Venomous snakes are responsible for an estimated 75,000 human deaths annually. In the United States approximately 45,000 snakebites occur each year, of which about 8,000 are by 20 species of venomous snakes. Deaths do not exceed 10 to 12 per year. (Blackman 399)

Essentially in the U.S. there are only a handful of deaths each year by 10% of the venomous species of snakes, most often rattlesnakes or copperheads, usually in the summer, and usually because of carelessness. Sometimes though, life happens. Perhaps you’re bushwalking through some heavy scree piles on the south-facing side of a mountain on the way to the peak, and perhaps you put your hand in the wrong spot. On the rare instances it may happen to you or your hiking companion, you’ll want to be prepared.

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Rattlesnake. Photo courtesy ofWikipedia.

Quick tips if you or someone you’re with gets bitten:

  1. Get the patient out of there! If the snake feels threatened enough to bite, it will likely do so again. Get them away from the snake without risking your own safety.
  2. Ask the patient to describe their pain and if they taste anything. If there’s intense pain at the bite and a metallic taste in their mouth, most likely they’ve been envenomed.
  3. Keep the bite wound below the heart. This will help keep the venom from spreading throughout the body.
  4. pump3-1024x576

    Sawyer Extractor. Photo courtesy ofsawyer.com

    Use a Sawyer Extractor as soon as possible.The Sawyer Extractor is a lightweight hand pump suction device for the removal of poisons and venoms from snake bites, bee stings, mosquito bites, and more. For even the novice backcountry explorer, consider the addition of this potentially life saving tool for your first aid kit.

  5. Get them to definitive care. If the patient has been envenomed, there’s a very good chance they will need antivenin at a hospital. Do your best to keep your patient calm and cool, but get them to professional care as soon as possible.
  6. Don’t do:  Don’t panic. Don’t use a tourniquet, ice, antihistamine, or X cutting on the wound. All of these methods are not effective, and can just compound the issue. While it might make sense to block blood flow from a snake bitten hand, you are gambling with a potential amputation or compartment syndrome down the road.

If you follow these points, you can help save a life. However, the best life saver in the backcountry is situational awareness. Keep an eye on your surroundings and be present. This is not only important for your own protection, but for your friends as well. If my friend Dylan hadn’t been paying attention that day at the ghost town, I might’ve been a ghost myself. Stay safe out there, keep your wits about you, and be prepared.

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Clay SpringmeyerClay Springmeyer is a Montana grown writer, musician, and Wilderness First Aid Instructor in Portland, OR. He studied Creative Writing and Wilderness Studies at the University ofMontana.