Snakebite Dos and Don’ts

Q. What is the latest advice in case of a venomous snakebite? –Name withheld, via e-mail

A. According to information issued by the University of Maryland Medical Center, nearly 8,000 people are bitten by poisonous snakes in the United States each year. But even a bite from a so-called harmless snake can cause infection or allergic reaction in some people. The best course of action is to obtain emergency medical assistance as quickly as possible. In the meantime, do the following:

■ Wash the bite with soap and water.

■ Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.

■ Cover the area with a clean, cool compress or a moist dressing to

minimize swelling and discomfort.

■ Monitor vital signs.

If you’re unable to reach medical care within 30 minutes, the American Red Cross recommends two further actions:

■ Wrap a bandage 2 to 4 inches above the bite, to help slow the venom. The band should be loose enough to slip a finger under it, so as not to cut off the flow of blood from a vein or artery.

■ Place a suction device over the bite to help draw venom out of the wound without making cuts.

The University of Florida offers the following list of dos and don’ts.

■ Do pull the snake off immediately. This is particularly important in the case of a coral snake. Its fangs are relatively small, and the snake has to work at

getting venom into the wound.

■ Do attempt to identify the offending snake. Kill the snake if you can, but don’t waste time or put your safety at risk. The symptoms will give medical

personnel an accurate diagnosis.

■ Do remain calm. Remember that there is an excellent chance for survival, and in most cases there is plenty of time.

■ Do remove jewelry. Swelling can progress rapidly, so rings, watches and bracelets should be removed.

■ Do suck and squeeze. Extract as much venom from the wound as you can.

■ Do mark the time. The progress of symptoms (swelling) is the most obvious indicator of the degree of envenomation.

■ Do keep the limb low. Always keep the bitten area below the level of the heart.

■ Do get to a hospital. Antivenin is the only sure cure for envenomation.

■ Do get a tetanus shot. Do this even if you’ve had one recently.

■ Don’t cut the wound. This causes more damage than it’s worth.

■ Don’t use a tourniquet. You’ll isolate the venom in a small area and cause the digestive enzymes in the venom to concentrate the damage.

■ Don’t drink alcohol. Alcohol speeds the heart rate and blood flow and reduces the body’s counter­active ability.

■ Don’t use ice. Freezing the limb can be a precursor to amputation.