Monday, January 2, 2012

How to avoid and treat snake bites on hikes

Some snakes, such as the cottonmouth or water moccasin in the Southeast and the diamondback rattlesnake in the Southwest, are extremely venomous, killing within an hour of a bite.

Fortunately, poisonous snakes don’t always inject venom when they bite, and some only spew a small amount that is survivable.

You can avoid snakes by staying out of tall grass. Don’t stick hands into dark holes and rocky crevices, don’t turn over rocks, and don’t hike at dusk or night when many snakes hunt. While climbing rocks, be careful where you stick your hand as a snake may be sunning itself.

If you see a snake, slowly back away from it. If you hear a rattle, stand still. In both cases, the snake usually will scoot away. Don’t try to get a closer look, as it invites attack, especially from a rattler, because it then feels cornered. A snake can strike at about a third of its body length, so you’ll probably be just far enough away that it can’t attack. Also, don’t mess with baby snakes for they too will bite.

Carry a snake bite kit if you walk through an area that has a high count of poisonous snakes. First learn how to use it before heading into the wilds, though. You can do more harm than good if you misuse the kit, which usually involves suctioning the venom from the bite area.

Sometimes hikers walking through grass don’t even realize they’ve been bitten (this is why staying on the clear trail is vital), and sometimes you stumble a little too close to a snake. Symptoms include pain and burning at the bite site followed by swelling and blistering. Nausea and vomiting, with numbness and tingling about the mouth, fingers and scalp also are indications. If the bite is severe, the victim also will grow faint and dizzy and have a weak pulse and cold, clammy skin. They may go into shock.

To treat a snake bite, lay the child down and reassure him to control his panic. Place a light compression bandage above the bite, as this can slow the spread of venom. Do not use a tourniquet, however. Then call for help and seek medical attention immediately.

Finally, if at all possible try to identify the snake so the right anti-venom can be used when the victim receives medical treatment.

Read more about day hiking with children in my guidebook Hikes with Tykes.