With the warmer months in full swing, snake season has arrived in Georgia.
Out of the 46 snake species in the state, only six are venomous, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ wildlife division.
Kathy Church, program coordinator with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said these dangerous snakes include the copperhead, timber rattlesnake, Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, Eastern coral snake, pigmy rattlesnake and water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth.
The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and water moccasin typically reside in the center of Georgia, while the Eastern coral snake’s range lies in Southern Georgia.
If a person is bitten by a snake, Church said there are only three things to remember — relax, call 911 and take a picture.
“If you’ve been bitten by a venomous snake, stay calm,” she said. “When the heart starts beating fast, it’s pumping the blood all over. Keeping the heart from speeding up will slow the spread of venom.”
Whether a venomous bite or not, she said calling 911 and traveling to the hospital is crucial. If people have the option of snapping a photograph of the snake, she recommends doing so to help the doctor identify the source of the bite.
To antivenom or not to antivenom?
Gaylord Lopez, clinical toxicologist and director of the Georgia Poison Center in Atlanta, said his staff receives around 500 snake bite calls a year. The number of calls slows down during November through January.
Angela Gary, executive director of trauma and emergency services at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said her staff has treated seven patients with antivenom since June 2018.
Despite the large number of bite victims in Georgia, Lopez said only 20-25% of all cases receive antivenom.
As a toxicologist, his job doesn’t entail relying on what the victim tells him about the snake.
“We can’t trust the patient describing the snake as the end-all,” Lopez said. “We base it on symptoms, so regardless of the snake, we send everyone to the hospital.”
Lopez said around 25% of venomous bites end up dry because snakes can control the amount they inject.
In a scenario where someone needs antivenom, the antidote can prove costly.
“It wouldn’t be unusual for antivenom to be thousands of dollars for one vial,” Lopez said. “Critically ill patients may need 15-20 vials.”
Even if the reptile doesn’t show the characteristic triangular head, patterns or slitted pupils of a venomous snake, Lopez advises people to seek medical attention. People can still receive bacterial infections from a nonvenomous bite.
Keeping a safe distance
Church said out of Georgia’s six venomous snakes, Hall County residents mostly encounter copperheads.
Northeast Georgia Medical Center offers CroFab, which is the antivenom used to treat North American pit viper bites. These snakes include water moccasins, rattlesnakes and copperheads.
“We do not keep coral snake antivenom because we don’t see patients with bites from coral snakes,” Gary said. “If a patient were to arrive with that kind of bite, we would get the antivenom to treat them.”
She said the Eastern coral snakes — notable for their bright red, yellow and black bands — require a different antivenom. This snake’s venom acts as a neurotoxin.
“They’re dangerous and it will shut down your heart, lungs and brain,” she said.
If a person sees a snake, Church said the most important action includes “turning around and walking away.”
“If you don’t want snakes coming back, get rid of what they’re going to eat,” she said. “If he’s in the attic, you probably have bats. If he’s under the house, you probably have rats.”
Church encourages people who spot a venomous snake near their homes to contact their local pest control and walk away.
Lopez said he dealt with a patient in 2018 who was bitten on the foot while doing yard work. The person moved to capture the snake and received a second bite on the hand.
“They’re not after humans no matter what anybody says,” Church said. “Do not try to kill them. A majority of people bitten usually were trying to kill it. That puts a person close enough to be bitten.”
Alan Scott, veterinarian at Gainesville Veterinary Hospital, said he sees an influx of pets getting snake bites during the warmer months. Most of them include dogs.
More often than not, he said the bitten pet doesn't need antivenom.
“Each case is a little different,” Scott said. “It depends on the size of the dog; obviously a smaller dog is more susceptible to the (venom) effects.”
If an animal does receive a snake bite, he encourages pet owners to seek veterinary care immediately.
Breaking snake venom myths
Despite what people see in movies about cowboys cutting their snake bites and sucking out the venom, Lopez said the method doesn’t work. He also advises against relying upon venom extractor kits.
“Let’s say a venomous snake shoots a thousand molecules of venom in you,” he said. “The Sawyer venom extractor may take out 100 molecules. It only takes one molecule for you to be sick.”
When many people see swelling, they tend to counter the effects with ice. Lopez doesn’t recommend using ice to slow down the swelling from a snake bite. He said ice speeds the venom through the system quicker.
Another movie myth involves putting on a tourniquet or constricting agent to prevent blood from carrying venom through a person’s system.
“You run the risk of cutting off blood supply to the area and can damage yourself even more,” Lopez said.
Pain medicine may seem like a simple solution to alleviate discomfort; however, it could add more complications to the mix.
“Venom can cause cardiovascular or heart issues that mainly revolve around dropping blood pressure very quickly and dangerously,” Lopez said. “You don’t want a drug to affect clotting and the poison effects at the same time. Don’t take pain medicines.”
An important player in the environment
Church describes snakes as “a massively important animal.”
She said snakes sit in the middle of the food chain, just below hawks, eagles, foxes and other predators.
Every time a person kills a snake, she said they not only take away a food source from those predators, but increase the amount of pests in the area.
Some of the animals snakes feed on include bats, insects, frogs, lizards, fish, birds and rodents.
“When you take out one snake, you’ve vastly increased the bug population,” Church said. “Their job in the middle is to keep the whole rest of the food chain in check. They’re free pest control.”