There are only four groups of venomous snakes found in the continental United States: copperheads, cottonmouths, rattlesnakes and coral snakes.
While Gila Monsters do not inject venom, they chew victims until neurotoxins move through their teeth and enter the wound.
You can identify venomous Black Widow spiders by their telltale red, hourglass-shaped markings.
Spiders, snakes and several other dangerous creatures have had an interesting history with the human race. The venomous nature of some of these creatures has a major impact on us and how we view these species in general. While many are small, the fact that they are venomous makes them worthy of our attention. Equally important are the methods that can be used in the field to treat their deadly bites.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7,000 to 8,000 people each year are bitten by snakes. Of those, only one in 500 will actually die from the bite. As a general statistic, deaths by snakebite rarely exceed 10 in any given year. Individual responses to snakebites vary, as some people can have an almost allergic reaction while others suffer only simple pain.
There are only four groups of venomous snakes found in the continental United States: copperheads, cottonmouths, rattlesnakes and coral snakes. Rattlesnakes are the most common venomous snake, with 31 different species spread across the U.S. With the exception of Alaska, venomous snakes are found across the U.S. Leading the pack is Arizona with 19 different types of venomous snakes within its borders.
Most snakebites are the result of less-than-solid decisions. Teasing or getting close to any snake is never a wise move. Left to themselves, snakes generally avoid people and prefer solitude. Occasionally, our worlds will collide, however, and bites will occur.
Treatments for snakebites can be the stuff of legend. From cutting an “X” on the bites and sucking out the venom to tourniquets, treatment suggestions sometimes are questionable. For a clear idea of what to do, we will look to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
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1. If you or someone you know has been bitten, try to remember the color and shape of the snake, which can help with treating the snakebite.
2. Keep the victim still and calm. This can slow down the spread of venom if the snake is poisonous.
3. Seek medical attention as soon as possible. Dial 911 or call local emergency medical services (EMS).
4. Apply first aid if you cannot get the person to the hospital right away. Lay or sit the person down with the bite below the level of the heart. Cover the bite with a clean, dry dressing.
7 Snakebite Don’t
If you’re bitten, take care to avoid doing the following:
1. Do not pick up the snake or try to trap it. This may put you or someone else at risk for another venomous bite.
2. Do not apply a tourniquet.
3. Do not slash the wound with a knife.
4. Do not attempt to suck out the venom.
5. Do not apply ice or immerse the wound in water.
6. Do not drink alcohol as a painkiller.
7. Do not drink caffeinated beverages.
While an important part of our environment, spiders are by nature venomous. Most spiders are too small or have venom too weak to injure humans. The tarantula is a great example. While feared by many, the bite of a tarantula is not considered medically serious. Painful, of course, because of the size of the fangs, but it lacks sufficient potency to be dangerous. However, spiders do indeed occasionally bite people and some of the bites can be dangerous. Similar to snakebites, the actual number of spider bites is small, with an average of 5,000 bites per year. The overall reaction to those bites depends on many factors, including age and general health.
The two medically significant spiders in the United States are the Black Widow and the Brown Recluse. Of the two, the Black Widow is generally considered to be more dangerous. It is often difficult to distinguish a spider bite from a bite from another insect. Most cases of Brown Recluse bites are not reported until days after the initial attack because of the time it takes to react. Black Widow bites tend to be more acute, but the ability to see a clear bite mark is difficult. These bites are most often diagnosed by the symptoms of its venom.
It is always best to err on the side of caution if you believe you have been bitten by a spider. You should be concerned if the local reaction continues to get worse for more than 24 hours. Specific things to look for are drainage from the bite area, pain, numbness and redness spreading away from the bite or circular discoloration around the bite. More serious reactions can appear in different parts of the body, including sweating, chills, headache, leg cramps and a rapid pulse. This is due to the nature of some spider venom’s ability to affect nerve function. If you experience these symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention. The CDC suggests these steps if you are bitten by a spider.
Surviving Spider Bites:
1. Stay calm. Identify the type of spider if it is possible to do so safely. Identification will aid in medical treatment.
2. Wash the afflicted area with anti-bacterial soap and water.
3. Apply a cloth dampened with cold water or filled with ice to reduce swelling.
4. Elevate the bite area, if possible.
5. Do not attempt to remove venom.
6. Immediately seek professional medical attention as soon as possible.
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Deadly Scorpion Stings
An almost other-worldly-looking creature, the scorpion has been around for over 430 million years. There are approximately 90 different species of scorpions living in the U.S. and 25 of those have venom strong enough to cause injury to humans. The largest concentration of scorpions is in the Southwest. The neurologic toxicity is dangerous especially to young children. Even with this menacing information, only four deaths have occurred in 11 years because of scorpion stings. This can be attributed to medical care in the U.S., and high general living standards. In Mexico, for example, there are approximately 1,000 deaths per year because of scorpion stings.
As with spiders, all scorpions are venomous. It is the tool with which they hunt. Most do not possess sufficient or toxic enough venom to be dangerous to humans. That said, the sting of a scorpion is still no laughing matter. Painful is the best word to describe an unhappy encounter with this ancient arachnid.
Immediate treatment is the key to dealing with a scorpion sting. According to Marilyn Bloom, the former director of the Arizona State University Scorpion Antivenin Program, there are some steps you should take if stung.
Treat A Scorpion Sting:
1. Wash the area immediately with anti-bacterial soap and water.
2. Apply a cool compress on the area of the scorpion sting. Ice (wrapped in a washcloth or another suitable covering) may be applied to the sting location for 10 minutes. Remove the compress for 10 minutes and repeat as necessary.
3. If stung on an arm or leg, elevate the limb to heart level.
4. Call your poison control center. They will assess the symptoms of the person who has been stung to determine the course of action. If severe symptoms are present (these might include blurry vision, muscle twitching, roving eye movements or other non-typical symptoms), they will direct you to the nearest emergency facility for treatment.
5. If a decision is made to keep the person at home, the poison control staff can follow up to make sure that the person is not developing symptoms that might need medical intervention or antivenom.
Gila Monster Threats
The fact that half of this creature’s name is “monster” is enough to send a nervous chill down your spine. Of all of the venomous creatures we deal with in the U.S., the Gila Monster is the least of our worries. The Gila Monster is one of only a handful of venomous lizards in the world, and as they grow to be as long as 2 feet, they are substantial in size. A Gila bite can be very painful. Unlike our other venomous creatures listed above, the Gila does not inject venom into its prey. They latch onto victims and chew to allow neurotoxins to move through the groves in their teeth to the wound. There has never been a death reported related to a Gila bite in the U.S. This can be attributed to several factors including the slow and lethargic nature of the lizard combined with its small numbers.
According to the University of Arizona, the treatment for a Gila Monster bite is straightforward. All patients with a Gila Monster bite who call the poison center are referred to a medical facility. There, the wound should be carefully explored for broken teeth. It is important to ensure that the victim’s tetanus immunization is up to date and that the patient is observed for signs and symptoms of infection. There is no antivenom available for treating Gila Monster bites.
Beat Gila Bites:
1. Remove the lizard as soon as possible by prying the lizard’s mouth open with a strong stick while giving it a solid foothold on the ground.
2. Irrigate the wound immediately with plenty of clean water.
3. Immobilize the affected limb by raising it to heart level.
4. Call your local poison control center.
There is no shortage of suggestions on how to treat bites and stings, from ancient remedies that involve a dog and a full moon to extractor pumps and lotions.
One process that has been a part of folklore, especially regarding snakebites, is to suck the poison out. The first ideas suggested that an “X” be cut across each fang entry point, then someone would proceed to suck the poison out. This process is problematic on many levels and should not be tried.
In the early 1980s, a company called Sawyer developed a suction kit utilizing a syringe that worked essentially the same way. Many people swear by the Sawyer Extractor Pump, and they can be found in backpacks around the country.
As with all self-treatment methods, it is best to educate yourself in great detail on your options and their effectiveness. For more information, visit sawyer.com or call 800-356-7811.
Humans have lived with these venomous creatures for millennia. Our great, great ancestors faced many of the same anxieties that the modern human race faces regarding these small but potentially dangerous creatures. The difference now is that we are much better informed and educated when it comes to these venomous animals. What hasn’t changed, however, is the reaction that most people experience when they come face to face with a venomous threat.
This article was originally published in SURVIVOR’S EDGE ™ Winter 2015 magazine. Print and Digital Subscriptions available here.
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