effects of rattlesnake and copperhead bites

winged_mammalMay 13, 2005

I know in the U.S. less than a dozen people die a year but what percentage of bites result in permanent injury? How often do fingers or other body parts need to be amputated after a bite? Anyone know? I couldn't really find much info on the internet. It seems to me like copperhead bites are not really that dangerous and would need no treatment and someone could just "ride it out" after being bitten. A rattlesnake bite might require antivenom though unless it was a "dry" bite. What I'm curious about though is assuming you live through the bite is there any permament effects?

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It depends on what elements are present in the venom. Most vipers ( copperheads, cottonmouths, and many rattlesnakes)have a hemotoxic venom, meaning it attacks body tissues. The venom will destroy tissues around the bite site if left untreated. If I were bitten by any venomous snake, even a copperhead, I would definitely seek medical treatment. It's better safe than sorry, and it is hard to say whether or not you recieved a "dry bite." If you recieve appropriate treatment very soon after a bite, chances are there won't need to be any amputations, but you never know. You have to take into thought that everyone will react a little differently to an envenomation, and to the antivenom.

Other snakes have a neurotoxic venom, meaning it attacks your nervous system. This will basically shut down your body, stopping breathing and your heart. Coral snakes have this type of venom, and some rattlesnakes have neurotoxic components mixed into their venom.

It's best to just take proper precautions. If you see a snake, and are not sure what it is, leave it alone. It will almost always try to escape. Snakes will not chase you if you go the other way. Most venomous snake bites occur when people try to handle/ kill the snake.

If you ever need help on a snake ID, post a detailed description or photo on this forum and someone will be able to help.

I hope that helps a little.


    Bookmark   May 13, 2005 at 2:55PM
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I've known about and studied snakes since I was a kid. I was just wondering about the permanent effect other than, in rare instances, death.
I know antivenom is given if the venom starts effecting a large area of the body but I've never seen any picures of dead tissue or whatever from untreated bites. I haven't been bitten yet and don't plan to but I do sometimes get close to copperheads and timber rattlesnakes. While I'm confident I won't die from a bite from either species (w/ treatment if neccessary) for some reason I'm more afraid of permanent disability but I've not been able to find info on snakebites except for statistics on death.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2005 at 4:34PM
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winged mammal,

Like you I haven't really been able to find that kind of statistical information. All I have is anecdotal information from a handful of folks who have been bit either in the field or by venomous pets. Anecdotal information can be unreliable and is no substitute for good statitstical data. But since anecdotal information is all I have, fwiw, I can say that I have met or heard from several people who have been bitten by rattlesnakes or copperheads (the rattlesnakes were usually people with rattlesnakes as pets and the copperheads were usually wild). Most of the rattlesnake bites required hospital care and antivenin but had no permanent effects. I met one guy who had to have half of a finger amputated because he got bit by a large Western Diamondback but that is the only permanent disability I have known of personally, though I suspect more serious amputations of limbs might happen on rare occasions. In any rate, the rattlesnake bites sounded like a pretty awful experience in the short term.

All the copperhead bites I have heard of were described as painful but not needing antivenin or really much of anything but some pain killers from the doc and some monitoring.

But I'm no expert on snakebite and my number of secondhand anecdotes is hardly enough to generalize from.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2005 at 11:27PM
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To get a good sense of the consequences of a snake bite try to catch a television program called "Venom ER" which I believe is on the Animal Planet cable network. The program follows an ER physican in Southern California. He is the expert on treating bites from venomous creatures including spiders. It's quite an eye-opener.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2005 at 6:17PM
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Cool, thanks for the response. I hope Venom ER doesn't make people more afraid of snake bites than they need to be. One of the shows I saw the guy actually died even after receiving several bottles of antivenom.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2005 at 8:14PM
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Venom ER is a neat show but I suspect it gives a very skewed view of snake bites because it selects the most dramatic cases that are the most interesting to watch. It is a bit like getting an idea of what being a police officer is like by watching one of those "world's wildest police chases" shows or getting an idea of what an average day field herping is like by watching Crocodile Hunter wrangle a few cobras and not see a single harmless snake.

Venom ER doesn't show the boring cases where someones thumb swells up and he needs an aspirin because we as an audience aren't going to be that interested in the mundane cases. Likewise police shows don't show motorists pulling over and cooperating and Crocodile Hunter doesn't show us a day where he catches 4 ringneck snakes and nothing else. Boring doesn't sell on TV even though it is more common than the dramatic outside of TV.

But I agree that Venom ER is a good show for getting a sense of what the more dangerous and dramatic effects of a rattlesnake bite can be.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2005 at 1:23AM
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Point well taken, Wayne

    Bookmark   May 15, 2005 at 1:47PM
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I stopped watching Venom ER. It seems that the only snake he knows about is the "Southern Pacific Rattlesnake", and despite the description from the victim to the contrary, he gives the wrong antivenon anyway, and the patient dies.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2005 at 9:59PM
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Can't pull it up right now, but I saw a chart indicating that a copperhead does not produce enough of their relatively weak venom to kill an adult reliably (the 'LD50' (Lethal Dose to kill 50% of those injected) is smaller than the amount of venom they produce.)

Timber rattlers, on the other hand, can produce a fairly large punch of a pretty aggressive venom.

Remember- the venom is designed to not only kill the prey, but to begin digestion as well.

Its been years since I saw it last, but at one time I found a college library book with lots of cool photos of bite-related damage, and it talked about the more realistic results fo bites and treatments.

The consensus was that there is far too much variation in the snake's toxicity, delivered dosage, patient condition, and patient care to establish any good statistics.

(Could it have been one of Fredrich Frye, DVM's books on herp medicine?)

    Bookmark   May 22, 2005 at 2:37AM
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