Most venomous snakes have vertical (catlike) pupils and a triangular-shaped head.
Alabama turkey hunter Chad Cross made national news this spring for using a bite and sting venom extraction kit after getting bitten by a timber rattlesnake. His doctor told him the kit could have possibly saved his life.
After the rattler bit Cross on the lower leg, he used the kit to extract the venom. He then spent two days in the hospital where he received a tetanus shot, antibiotics and pain medicine. So far, no nerve or tissue damage has been discovered.
According to the Center for Disease Control, each year approximately 7,000 to 8,000 people receive venomous bites in the United States, and about five of those people die. The number of deaths would be much higher if people did not seek medical care. Although the chance of dying from a venomous snake bite is low, those who spend time outdoors should always keep an eye out for venomous snakes.
Alabama has six species of venomous snakes. Five of the six belong to the pit viper group and include the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, timber rattler, pigmy rattlesnake, cottonmouth (water moccasin) and copperhead. Snakes in this group have retractable, hollow fangs near the front of the mouth used to inject venom into prey.
The sixth poisonous snake found in Alabama, the coral snake, belongs to the non-viper group. The coral snake has short, erect, grooved fangs near the front of the upper jaw rather than retractable, hollow fangs.
Copperheads account for more cases of venomous snake bite than any other North American species. However, their venom is the least toxic, so their bite is seldom fatal.
If you spend much time outdoors hunting, hiking, fishing or gardening, you’ll most likely encounter a snake at some point. Most snakes you will encounter are non-venomous, so try to remain calm. Keep children and pets at a safe distance while you try to identify whether or not the snake is venomous. A snake will usually try to escape to the nearest cover, so try not to stand between it and the bushes or other cover.
Venomous snakes (except for the coral snake) usually have a triangular or arrowhead-shaped head. But remember that several non-poisonous snakes, such as the Eastern hognose snake, may flatten their heads when threatened to give the appearance of a poisonous snake. Non-poisonous snakes have rounded pupils located in the center of the eye.
Most venomous snakes have a vertical, elliptical (catlike) pupil. Poisonous snakes usually have a single row of scales on the underside of the tail, except for the venomous coral snake, which has a double row. A double row is common in most non-poisonous snakes. Of course, you’ll not want to check the underbelly of a potentially venomous snake, but it is very useful when looking at a shed skin.
A third way to identify a poisonous snake is by the presence of a pit or hole between the snake’s eyes and nostrils. This heat-sensitive pit enables the snake to locate warm-blooded prey, even in the dark. Non-venomous snakes lack these specialized sensory pits.
To avoid being bitten by a snake, the Alabama Department of Public Health recommends the following:
- When entering any area, use caution.
- Use a stick or some type of rod to move objects slowly and carefully to check for anything hidden behind them.
- If possible, wear boots and heavy gloves when clearing an area and work with someone else.
- Make noise when entering an area to alert snakes to your presence and to cause them to make a sound or movement that will tell you their location.
- Snakes will not usually bite unless cornered, handled or stepped on, and most snakes are not venomous.
- If you find a snake, it’s best to leave it alone. Snakes will return to their own environment away from humans as quickly as they can. Snakes help keep the rodent population down, so it’s best not to kill them unless absolutely necessary.
- If you must kill a snake, one of the most effective methods is to use a long-handled hoe to strike it in the back of the snake’s head.
- Be sure to warn children to watch out for snakes and not to get close to them. Tell them it’s best to back off quickly and quietly from a snake to avoid making it feel threatened.
According to the Mayo clinic, if a snake bites you:
- Remain calm.
- Immobilize the bitten arm or leg, and stay as quiet as possible to keep the poison from spreading through your body.
- Remove jewelry before you start to swell.
- Position yourself, if possible, so that the bite is at or below the level of your heart.
- Cleanse the wound but don’t flush it with water, and cover it with a clean, dry dressing.
- Apply a splint to reduce movement of the affected area, but keep it loose enough so as not to restrict blood flow.
- Don’t use a tourniquet or apply ice.
- Don’t cut the wound or attempt to remove the venom.
- Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol.
- Don’t try to capture the snake, but try to remember its color and shape so you can describe it, which will help in your treatment.
This summer, enjoy your time outdoors and do what you can to avoid venomous snakes. But, if you are bitten, remember to remain calm and seek medical attention. Also, remember that most snakes you encounter are not venomous.