• December 20, 2014

Beware of snakes: Caution urged as reptiles spring to life

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Posted: Monday, March 24, 2014 4:30 am

TEMPLE — It’s the time of year when thoughts turn to spring flowers, the leafing out of trees and, with the approach of Easter season, bunnies and baby ducks.

Critters you might want to add to the seasonal list are snakes, said Tim Cole, owner of Austin Reptile Service.

Cole, along with Dr. Ryan Morrissey, director of Central Texas Poison Control at Scott & White, and Dr. Dominic Lucia, medical director of McLane Children’s Hospital emergency medicine, talked about snakes and snake bites Wednesday.

Snakes are the most active in the spring because the weather is warming up and they are hungry after being dormant most of the winter.

This is also the mating season and male snakes are out and about looking for a partner, Cole said.

“We’re entering the snake-bite season and we’re going to see more interaction between snakes and people as we get out more and they get out more,” Morrissey said.

If a bite appears to be life threatening a call to 911 is the way to go, he said. If it’s not immediately threatening, call Poison Control at 800-222-1222.

“We’re staffed 24/7 by pharmacists, nurses and physicians,” Morrissey said.

The poison control staff can assist in determining if the bite can be handled at home or if professional care is needed.

Texas has the most snake bites annually in the country, usually between 500 and 1,000. One-third to a half of those bites are venomous.

Exploring young children, and reckless young men, who are often intoxicated, make up a good chunk of the bite victims, he said.

“Most will end up at a hospital or clinic with the complications being pain at the site, mainly some bleeding and bruising, and rarely threat of a limb and very rarely death,” Morrissey said.

Cole brought with him a Texas coral snake, a juvenile and small adult diamondback rattlesnake, a Western cottonmouth (also called water moccasin) and a copperhead.

“Learn these four and don’t worry about the rest,” Cole said. “If it’s not a rattlesnake, copperhead, coral snake or cottonmouth it’s not an issue.”

A threat if handled

Coral snakes spend most of their time under leaves and logs and few people ever see them, he said. They really aren’t a threat unless they are handled.

Western diamondback rattlesnakes shed within 10 days of being born and then scatter.

“Most of our rattlesnake calls are about babies because they haven’t figured out where food, water and shelter are,” Cole said. “They end up in some strange places, like back steps and garages, looking for mice and lizards to eat.”

Adult diamondbacks want to stay away from activities and people.

Cottonmouths have black-and-white chins, float on top of the water and are not all that common.

“The copperhead is the only snake we have that is a two-color banded snake,” he said. “The name copperhead does apply.”

People who keep their yards clear of debris and their grass mowed won’t have snakes. Sheds should be up off the ground or on a slab.

The majority of snakes sighted in yards are just passing through, Cole said. The most common snakes in the area are rat snakes and it’s the only large snake that climbs.

Local treatment

In 2012 and 2013, 30 snake bites were seen at the Scott & White Hospital emergency department. During the same period, 11 snake bites were seen at McLane Children’s emergency department.

Those numbers represent patients who were required to stay at the hospital for an extended period of time and received antivenin during their hospital stays, Lucia said.

“We have a lot of cases of dry bites, where there’s a suspected snake bite but we don’t know what the actual creature was that did it,” he said.

In those patients, blood work is checked and staff watch for symptoms, such as swelling at the site. If swelling begins to expand, that’s a sign that antivenin might be considered.

Other symptoms can be nausea, vomiting and flu-like. Cardiovascular symptoms are changes in blood pressure and heart rate, difficulty breathing and increased bleeding.

“We take our cues from established algorithms and stay consistent in our treatments, which includes a period of observation,” Lucia said.

Any pediatric patient requiring antivenin will be moved to the intensive care unit.

“They will constantly be re-evaluating the patient, the bite site and the systemic signs to see if they need any more antivenin,” he said.

The antivenin dosage for children is the same as that of an adult.

Rarely is the type of snake responsible for a bite identified, Lucia said.

“Sometimes we’ll get a treat — they’ll get the snake and bring it into us in various stages of living,” he said.

“The nurses and the doctors aren’t very fond of that, but it does help us with identification.”

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