MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital’s Summer Health Tip

Out of the 27 species of snakes that call Maryland their home, only two are poisonous: the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead.The timber rattlesnake nestles itself in mountainous, rocky regions, primarily in Northern Maryland. This venomous viper has a certain warning tone to it, but it is not quite what you would expect. If you…

August 15, 2014

Out of the 27 species of snakes that call Maryland their home, only two are poisonous: the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead.

The timber rattlesnake nestles itself in mountainous, rocky regions, primarily in Northern Maryland. This venomous viper has a certain warning tone to it, but it is not quite what you would expect. If you think a rattlesnake would sound like your two year old son’s toy, you are very wrong. Rattlers shake their tail at a speed babies cannot even comprehend. Combine the rattling sound with the insistent “hiss” that the vermin makes, it is a terrifying symphony. If you hear this noise, turn the other way and do not look back.

The copperhead is most commonly found along remote, rocky and wooded areas, making Southern Maryland this serpent’s heaven. The reddish-brown viper is easily identified by its sleek, elongated eyes and its vertical pupil. The pattern along the snake resembles an hourglass, with wide brown markings along the sides of the serpent and skinny markings of the same color along the back of the snake. They use their coloring to camouflage themselves with the ground, making them difficult to spot. However, the lurking reptile will not miss you.

Michael Perraut, MD, chair of the Emergency Department (ED) at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital, shares his expertise on copperheads. “Copperheads are the only poisonous snakes native to St. Mary’s County. They are members of a family called crotalids, which includes rattlesnakes and moccasins.”

“Compared to these other members, copperheads are the weakest.” Dr. Perraut explained. “Up to 30 percent of copperhead bites are ‘dry bites,’ or bites without venom injected, and those bites where venom is injected rarely result in loss of life or limb.”

In the event that you are in close proximity of a copperhead, or any species, immediately stop moving. Let the snake pass by you, and slowly back away from the snake. If you can get out of the viper’s striking range, which is between one-third and three-fourths of the snake’s body length, then you are safe. Also, be careful when swimming, because there is a chance of water snakes attacking in our local murky waters, though these snakes are typically non-poisonous.

Signs of a snake bite are fairly simple. There will be a pair of puncture marks right along the site of the wound. The victim may feel itching, burning or pain around the bite. Dr. Perraut advised, “If you are bitten by a snake, it is important to note the pattern and coloring of the snake if possible. Do not apply a tourniquet, cut the bite site or try to suck out the venom. Do not try to kill the snake to bring it with you to the hospital as most medical decisions will be based on the reaction by the body to the bite.”

“Keep the bitten extremity at the level of the heart, remain calm, limit movement of the bite site, and call 911.” Your local hospital, such as MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital, will be able to treat the victim properly if you follow these steps.

“Most bites require local wound care and pain relief only. Some severe bites may need anti-venom; however, this treatment carries a small risk of allergic reactions and is very expensive,” Dr. Perraut explained. “Remember, few copperhead bites result in serious damage, so the choice to give anti-venom depends on your wishes and advice of your doctor along with a specialist from the Maryland Poison Control Center as needed.”

“In the end, thankfully, most patients who suffer copperhead bites do very well. The best advice is to leave these important predators alone so they can play their role in our world, which is to bite mice and frogs..., not humans.”

 

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