Desert Snakebite (Prevention)


MojaveSnake bites are very dangerous and can be deadly even if you treat them properly. The key to the proper treatment of a snakebite is to get to the hospital. In my experience, I have spoken with several people that have been bitten by a variety of snakes. Depending on the type of snake will depend on the treatment as well as the outcome. Crotalus scutulatus or the Mojave Rattlesnake has two types of venom; neurotoxin and hemotoxin. This means that it will attack the nervous system as well as deteriorate the blood vessels and other tissues. One person I spoke with was bitten in the hand from trying to pick one up. 5 minutes after he was bitten he passed out. In this case he was very lucky to have had someone with him that could get help. Being alone in the desert should one be bitten by a Mojave Rattler could spell death.  What happens with this bite is as the venom is working on the body it will start to paralyze you, usually starting with the lungs. This makes it extremely hard to supply oxygen to the blood, cutting off vital circulation to the bodies main organs thus causing a rapid deterioration of oneself, resulting in some cases, death.

Another snake that is known for its neurotoxic venom is the coral snake. This is an elapid, or the cobra family. We are fortunate for the fact that this snake is very reclusive and will generally try to flee before getting discovered. The fangs are fixed meaning that they are not retracted like that of the viper. These fangs are short and can not penetrate heavy leather boots. The actual likelihood of being envenomated by a coral snake is low unless you step on it while barefooted or try to handle one.

The bites from both of the above snakes are potentially fatal. Venturing into their territory alone is asking for trouble. It is always best to play it safe and take someone with you that can assist in emergency aid should you be bitten. Arizona itself is known for its 13 different varieties of rattlesnakes. The chances of running into one are very high. To start out lets talk about prevention. This will go miles in protecting you from a possible envenomation. I am one that likes to handle venomous reptiles. This takes extreme care, caution, and a lifetime of proper training, THEREFORE NOT RECOMMENDED. I have spent the last 12 years studying the behavior of different snake species in Arizona. For the most part when I encounter one they just want to be left alone and they will usually just go on their way. In some cases I have had western diamondbacks as well as mojaves stand their ground. They will become agitated and stand up in the classic “S” position. This means they are ready to strike. While this makes for a great photo opportunity, those that have no experience with venomous reptiles should heed the warning and back away.

azblackpeekingI have also found  my fair share of snakes under rocks and in debris piles left by flash foods. They will take shelter in these to escape the heat of the desert. Always approach these types of areas with extreme caution. If you need to flip a rock, do so by lifting the rock with the underside away from you so it will act as a type of shield. Do not wrap your fingers underneath the rock to lift it, do the same thing for logs, and roll them toward you. Personally I like to use a walking stick while in the desert. This gives me a little extra reach and allows me to flip rocks and logs at a safe distance. I can also probe and lift up on brush and tall grasses so I don’t get an unwanted surprise. I will also never step over logs, I will step up onto it and carefully inspect the underside before proceeding. While climbing rocks and cliffs be extra careful. It is not unusual for a climber to pull themselves up on a ledge only to be bit in the face by a waiting rattler. Watch the cracks and crevices where you will be placing your hands as well. Snakes can and will fit in the smallest of spaces.

With many different ways to treat a snake a bite while in the field, very few actually being medically viable, I can tell you that the best treatment is to seek medical attention immediately. Keep the bite site below the heart if possible and do not panic. Keep your heart rate down; this will slow the advancement of venom through your system. If bitten in the hand quickly remove all jewelry, watches, or bracelets. The hand will begin to swell very rapidly; removing these objects will prevent further damage to surrounding tissues. If the bite is on the foot or leg, loosen your footwear to give a little room for the inevitable swelling. Walk quickly but do not run.

Snake Bite Kit No NoThere are suction devices on the market that are called snake bite kits. Do not use them! By sitting around and using one of these kits in the field you are wasting valuable time that could otherwise be spent getting to help. These are worthless pieces of wasted space! If you would like to see just how well they work, the next time you get a shot from your Doctor take one of those pumps and try to “suck” out the area. This is the exact same way that a snake’s fangs work, they are simply hypodermic needles. In fact some rattlers I have seen will plant them in a lot further than a  hypodermic needle.

The only time that I would suggest using one of these kits is if you have someone with you and you are enroute to the hospital. This is done for physiological reasons. If it will keep you calm and your heart rate down then do it. One thing that you can do that does not take much time is to wrap an ace bandage loosely above the bite site. Make sure you are able to place your fingers under it, and then get to moving. This will act as a lymph restrictor and not as a tourniquet. A lymph restrictor will aid in slowing down of the venom through your lymphatic system. This is not recommended in the US but is employed in Australia because of the brown snake. This snake has neurotoxic venom much like the coral and the mix of toxins in the Mojave. I mentioned this because it is viable information if you do not know what snake bit you.

You will notice that there is a small razor in the red Welsh kit. Under no circumstances are you to cut any part of a snake bite. This can cause further infection as well as other issues. Also never suck out the venom from yourself or anyone else. This can make your issue worse; one mouth sore or cavity and you have just been envenomated.

I have dealt with a lot of snakes over the years while in the field and if you attempted to use a suction device you would need two. The largest applicator in the kit is around a half inch in diameter. Some snakes’ heads I have seen will reach 1.5 inches to over 2 inches in rare cases. The bite radius alone is too large for a single suction device. I am not saying these tools do not work; I am saying they do not work for snake bites. I have used them several times on bee, desert hairy scorpion, and wasp stings. I have also used them on wolf spider and ant bites. Each time I have used a suction device on one of those I have had a lot of success.

Now what if you are miles or days away from help? There are some things you can do to help mitigate your situation. I highly suggest that you understand that these are last ditch methods and should not be relied upon if you are able to make to a hospital in a reasonable amount of time. Please seek proper medical training before implementing these methods. Understand that you are taking your life into your own hands by using them.

101_0044Plantain (Plantago major)Plantain – or P. lanceolata at left and Plantago major at right. These two plants are magnificent when made into a drawing poultice. I have used these on bee, wasp, scorpion stings, spider and ant bites, and a host of other problematic issues such as burns and infections of the skin. These plants can also be collected, dried, and stored for later use. If you’re going to utilize a  fresh, live plant,  bruise the plant and put on the affected area and cover. This “dressing” can be changed several times throughout the day. To use these plants in a dried fashion which is also my preferred method, I will place the plant in my mouth after breaking it up. This will moisten the plant and allow it to start its drawing action. This is then placed on the affected area and covered. This “dressing” will need to be changed every hour. Earlier this year I was bitten by a baby Speckled Rattler on the right pinky knuckle. The venom yield in these snakes is not as high as a Diamond back and not even as dangerous as a Mojave. I used the P. lanceolata as a poultice once I realized I was in trouble. The fang marks were just over 1/4 inch apart…at the time I didn’t even realize it was a snake. My hand began turning black around the bite site and I became very sick. This worked very well for me, however I do still have stiffness at the joint. I highly recommend treating every bite the same by getting to the hospital. P. lanceolata also worked very well on my sons Arizona Brown Spider bite. It began to turn black and was as big around as a quarter, pus , and smelled of decay by the time he told me about it, with a moist poultice it was cleared out within a couple of days. There have been no further complications due to the bite in over a year.

In addition to the use of these plants, one could add charcoal to the poultice or use it on its own. Charcoal will make a very good drawing poultice for a variety of issues. This works not as an absorbent but an adsorbent. This means that the toxins will adhere to the outside due to the porous surface of the charcoal. Activated charcoal will work the best; however campfire charcoal will also work in a pinch. The difference between the two is the process and the effect of the process on the overall structure of the charcoal. Activated charcoal is made in an environment absent of oxygen. What this will do is open the pores on the surface allowing for greater adsorption. A decent charcoal can be made in the field by starving the burning soft wood of oxygen. I will make this by using a large char tin. Once the process is complete I will remove it from the fire and quickly bury it to keep as much oxygen away from the inside of the can as possible. This takes valuable time to make so if you are bitten I highly suggest making it beforehand and having it ready to go.

Chamaesyce polycarpaAnother plant that Native Americans were well known for using in the southwest for treating snake bites was Chamaesyce polycarpa. This plant is a member of the Euphorbia family and is known as sandmat. This was made into a poultice and applied to the bite. This was also chewed to cause sweating and vomiting ……not so good in a survival situation. This plant is considered toxic but can be used carefully as a diaphoretic and has been known to burn the skin and mucous membranes..

Treating a poisonous snake bite in the field in this manner is very dangerous. Use this information only in an extreme situation, when there is no foreseeable way of reaching proper medical attention. Looking around for a plant or making charcoal during a life or death situation such as an envenomation is not only dangerous, but can be life ending. If you choose to use these methods always have the proper material on hand when it is needed. Do not waste valuable time when that time could be spent getting to medical attention. The information in this article is for information purposes only and should not be used unless there are no other means. All plants mentioned should only be used by someone that is trained in their uses and with proper medical training. I wrote this article not to teach a bite “cure” I also did not mention any kind of allergic reaction one may have to a bite or to the antivenin. This is always a very big possibility, please be careful whenever you are in snake country. Remember the best course of action is always prevention!