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Published on September 13, 2018

Be Alert - Watch for Rattlesnakes Sign

While Rattlers Are Rare, Know What To Do In Case of Snakebites

The Northern Plains only have one significant species of venomous snake, but the prairie rattlesnake and its powerful venom are nothing to take lightly.

Health care professionals remind everyone who is out and about this summer to remember the basics when it comes to facing these mostly reclusive but occasionally deadly creatures.

“We have plenty of nonvenomous snakes in South Dakota and Nebraska, and first aid for those is almost like a scratch – you just clean it and put a bandage on it,” said Sarah Sperl, RN, RN Manager for Avera Gregory Hospital. “But rattlesnake bites are serious emergencies. If one bites you, call 911 right away and get to a hospital.”

It Does Happen

Two rattlesnake bites, including a fatal occurrence, took place this summer in South Dakota. One occurred in the Black Hills and another along the Missouri River. Those areas, along with the Badlands National Park, are where rattlesnakes are most common. While rare in eastern parts of their range, the reptile has been found in an area that includes the entire Nebraska-South Dakota border.

Like any animal-produced venom, some individuals may have allergic reactions to the poison. In some cases, an unlucky bite may force venom into a vein or artery, which can aggravate the reaction.

“In most cases, the signs of a rattlesnake bite are obvious. There will be severe burning pain at the site, usually within 15 to 30 minutes and this can progress to swelling and bruising at the wound, and can go all the way up the arm or leg, depending on where you were bitten, ” Sperl said. “You should call 911 and get to a facility for treatment as soon as possible. Do not apply a tourniquet, do not apply ice, keep the person calm, and also keep the bitten body part as still as possible.”

Additional Safety Steps

In addition, the site of the wound should be kept steady and below the heart. Keeping the person who was bitten from moving will help to keep the blood with poison from traveling through the body. Over time, this can cause additional bleeding as well as compromise the body’s central nervous system, which controls breathing and heart rate. Nausea and a strange taste in the person’s mouth also are symptoms of a venomous snake bite.

“You do not want to cut the wound or attempt to draw out the venom with any form of suction – that’s something in the movies that is never a good idea,” said Sperl. “Do not use a snake-bite kit either – you can clean it, but do not flush it with lots of water. Instead, cover it with a clean, dry dressing. The biggest thing is to keep the person calm and keep the part of the body where the bite occurred as motionless as possible. And get them to a hospital.”

Medication That Can Help

Many facilities in “snake country” carry medications called anti-venom that allow health care professionals to treat the injury. Sperl said while not every hospital carries this drug, it is on-hand at Avera Gregory Hospital. The anti-venom drug is called CROFAB.

“The South Dakota Department of Health Trauma Program has a comprehensive list of all hospitals in the state that keep anti-venom in stock,” said Sperl. “They’ve shared it with all South Dakota trauma centers, as well as all licensed ambulance services, so those professionals can expedite patients to facilities who have the anti-venom on hand.”

Most facilities coordinate with one another to care for bite victims. In Gregory, Sperl explained that emergency responders will incorporate the Avera eCARE® Emergency experts for assistance. In many cases, patients are prepped for transport to another facility if needed. Since the venom can affect breathing, air transport to an intensive-care equipped hospital does take place.

“We just remind everyone that while we don’t see a lot of snake bites, they are serious medical situations, so knowing what to do is important,” said Richard Kafka, MD, a family medicine physician with Avera Medical Group Gregory. “Keep the patient immobile and calm, call 911 and get them to help as soon as possible. Doing so could save a life.”

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