As the weather heats up and people spend more time outdoors, the possibility of coming into contact with rattlesnakes increases significantly.
On June 28, a 70-year-old man was bitten on the finger by a two-button (baby) rattlesnake while lifting a concrete bag near his house in Wallace, according to Calaveras Consolidated Fire Protection District Engineer Dustin Galliazzo. It’s a harsh reminder that the snakes can be stumbled upon just about anywhere throughout the county.
The man was transported to Mark Twain Medical Center for treatment. Galliazzo said residents should pay close attention to any spots a rattlesnake could hide – shaded areas, planter boxes and under decks. Should a bite occur, call 911. Don’t try to catch the snake, Galliazzo said.
According to the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UCIPM), the rattlesnake is the only native venomous snake in California, with a territory ranging from below sea level to 11,000 feet in elevation.
There are nine different species of rattlesnakes across the state. Their sizes can vary significantly, but the largest can reach up to six feet in length.
Although rattlesnakes can pose a threat to humans and animals, they are an important part of the ecosystem, feeding on rodents, birds and other small animals.
All species have a distinctive, triangular-shaped head and rattles at the ends of their tails. Baby rattlesnakes are born with one rattle segment, with additional segments formed each time their skin is shed.
However, sometimes rattles are broken off, meaning the lack of a rattle doesn’t necessarily mean that the snake is not a rattlesnake.
“Most rattlesnakes forage for prey in or near brushy or tall grass areas, rock outcrops, rodent burrows, around and under surface objects, and sometimes in the open,” according to the UCIPM website. “When inactive, most rattlesnakes seek cover in crevices of rocks, under surface objects, beneath dense vegetation and in rodent burrows. In some areas, rattlesnakes hibernate for several months in the crevices of rock accumulations.”
Rattlesnake venom is produced from glands behind the eyes, and is delivered through ducts to hollow fangs. While a bite doesn’t always inject venom, rattlesnakes are capable of delivering venomous bites for an hour or more after they have been killed through a reflex action.
About 1,000 rattlesnake bites are reported each year across the United States, with fewer than four people dying from their wounds.
In California, over 300 cases of rattlesnake bites are reported to the California Poison Control System (CPCS) annually, according to its website, with additional cases managed by physicians and hospitals.
Rattlesnake bites can “produce painful swelling, bruising, tissue destruction, bleeding problems and, in rare cases, can be fatal.”
Other possible symptoms are nausea, swelling of the mouth and throat, lightheadedness, drooling and shock and collapse in rare cases.
While death is unlikely following a rattlesnake bite, disability or permanent injury are more common, and are estimated to occur in between 10% and 44% of rattlesnake bite victims, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
Although rattlesnake bites are rare in comparison to other environmental injuries, they still occur across the state every year.
Children should be closely supervised when playing outside, as they are naturally curious and like to explore under rocks and bushes where rattlesnakes may be present.
Staying on established trails when hiking, as well as wearing boots and long pants, will help decrease the likelihood of getting bitten.
Rattlesnakes are typically nonaggressive and tend to strike only in self-defense, so they shouldn’t be touched or disturbed, even if they appear to be dead.
Paying close attention to the environment while outdoors will reduce chances of harm if coming into contact with rattlesnakes. Logs and rocks should be carefully inspected before sitting on them.
It is a good idea to never hike alone in remote areas, so that someone can provide assistance in case of an emergency.
If bitten by a rattlesnake, the CPCS recommends seeking medical attention immediately, and warns against applying ice, using a tourniquet or constricting band, trying to suck out the venom, or cutting or slicing the wound.
Additionally, it is important to keep calm, to avoid running and to elevate the affected extremity at heart level on the way to a medical facility.
According to Kristine Dittman, the emergency room manager at Mark Twain Medical Center in San Andreas, two victims of rattlesnake bites have already been admitted for treatment this year.
“Last year I think we had eight total,” Dittman said. “We average between six and 10 every year. We see them as early as springtime, but we generally see them in the summer, when people are spending more time outdoors.”
At the hospital, medical professionals take lab work and monitor vital signs and swelling to determine the proper course of treatment.
If antivenom treatment is deemed to be necessary, “We usually start with four through six vials of antivenom to get the swelling under control,” Dittman said. “Then we put a vial each in maintenance bags and give a smaller dose over time. We often will use two or three of those. The amount depends on a lot of different factors.”
Dittman said swelling usually stops immediately with treatment.
“I’ve never had anyone not do well with the antidote,” she said.
Patients are admitted to the Intensive Care Unit, and “They generally stay for about three days,” Dittman said. “It depends – a lot of venom from a large snake can require a large amount of treatment, and there can be complications.”
Dittman advised people to take off any constricting jewelry near the bite area, and to keep the affected extremity at the level of the heart on the way to the hospital.
She echoed the outdated measures like trying to suck out the venom, or cutting the bite area.
“The science doesn’t back those up,” Dittman said. “Putting the mouth on an open wound can also introduce bacteria and lead to an infection.”
Dittman advised rattlesnake bite victims to get to the hospital as quickly as possible.
“Time is tissue,” she said. “The sooner you can get the antivenom the better. Come in and get checked out, even if you think you might have gotten bitten.”
Reporter Davis Harper contributed to this report.