May 9, 2000


Officials at the California Poison Control System warn that encounters with rattlesnakes appear to be on the rise, probably because of the rich vegetation brought on by high rainfall compounded by increasing encroachment of housing and hikers into snake habitat.

During the month of April, the CPCS recorded more than 40 cases of rattlesnake bites, according to Stuart E. Heard, PharmD, Executive Director of the statewide poison control hotline. Many of these victims were engaging in harmless pursuits such as gardening, hiking or camping, but soon found themselves in a hospital emergency department being treated with intravenous antivenom to counteract the effects of the snakebite.

Snakes utilize their venom to kill and digest their prey, but when they bite a human, their intent is usually self-protective, according to the CPCS. They may choose to inject little or no venom, or a large quantity. Baby snakes may be more dangerous because of poor control of their venom apparatus leading to a larger venom dose. The bite is initially painful and is followed by progressive swelling, bruising, and worsening pain. Tingling around the lips and tongue, abnormal bleeding, and muscle weakness may also occur, depending on the species and the dose of venom. Without treatment, severe tissue damage and loss of a finger, toe or limb sometimes occurs, and bites are occasionally fatal.

Prevention and Treatment

Treatment for snakebite should be given in an emergency department. The CPCS does not recommend traditional first aid remedies such as cutting into the wound, dunking the injured part in ice, using a tourniquet, or attempting to suck out the venom with one's mouth. "These can all worsen the injury and are not likely to remove much venom, anyway" says Richard F. Clark, MD, Executive Medical Director of the CPCS.

Prevention is the key to avoiding a trip to the hospital. When hiking, wear thick soled, ankle-height boots and keep an eye out for snakes sunning themselves on the trail or in nearby undergrowth. Listen for the rattling sound of a frightened or cornered snake. If you see a snake, stop or move away from it. Do not attempt to kill or frighten it. Snakes can strike rapidly at a distance approximately equal to their body length. If a bite occurs, take the victim to an emergency department for evaluation and possible treatment.

The number of snake encounters seems to have been increasing in California for the past three years, says Kent R. Olson, MD, Medical Director of the San Francisco Division of the CPCS. "We have seen more cases in people hiking or gardening, who didn't even see the snake." Adds Clark, "The conventional wisdom is that the snakebite victim is usually young, male, intoxicated and playing with or harassing the snake. While this is still a common reason, truly accidental encounters are becoming more common."

The statewide California Poison Control System (CPCS) receives about 300,000 phone calls a year for poison information and help. The system allows Californians to dial one toll-free number from anywhere in the state (1-800-222-1222 ). CPCS consists of four divisions located at Valley Children's Hospital in Fresno/Madera, UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, UC San Diego Medical Center and the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco General Hospital Medical Center. The California Poison Control System is managed by the UC San Francisco School of Pharmacy.


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