The chances are very remote that you will ever be bitten—unless you decide to pick up or handle a rattlesnake.
But it pays to know what to do.
If the perfect storm happens, as it did for me a year ago when I stepped on a rattlesnake while photographing wildflowers, this is what you need to know.
Most people who receive a legitimate bite from a rattlesnake (not from doing something stupid like handling one) do not hear the snake rattle before being bitten.
They may rattle. They may not. So most people don’t even realize what has happened when bitten. Snakes blend into their surroundings as their first line of defense.
When bitten, you have just received two injections of poison venom. The venom is already in your bloodstream. Stay calm.
You’ll feel the effects in one-two minutes.
The most important thing is to stay calm. Move away from the snake. The snake will probably be rattling by now. It will be just as interested in getting away from you as you are from it.
Step away from the snake. Get a safe distance, sit down and relax.
You have some time.
Dial 9-1-1 immediately. If you have a cellphone, which I highly recommend when hiking, use it. Better yet, call someone who will dial 9-1-1 from a land line. You will get a faster response.
Don’t attempt to identify the snake. Here in the Bay Area, there is only one kind of dangerous venomous snake, the Northern Pacific rattlesnake. Don’t waste your precious time catching, touching, or killing the snake—let it go its way—get yourself to a hospital.
Don’t apply a tourniquet. This can cause or speed up a condition called compartment syndrome, which is a horrible thing.
Don’t cut the site of envenomation (the bite site). Don’t try to suck out rattlesnake venom. This is old school and just doesn’t work. It’s like trying to suck out an injection at your doctor’s office. You can’t. And doing so can cause a terrible infection.
Don’t ice it. Keep the area of envenomation immobile. You can also wash it with soap and water if you want but do not ice it.
Loosen your clothing in the area of the bite. I was bitten in the ankle so I took off my shoe and my sock. I had to, because my foot swelled up very fast.
Keep the site of envenomation below your heart. You’d like to keep the venom out of your heart as long as possible.
Move into the shade if you’re not already in it.
Find someone with a black sharpie or a pen. Write the time of envenomation next to the wound. That will be the first of many black sharpie marks on whichever extremity you were bitten. This is how they keep track of the swelling. How quickly and how much you swell are indications of how much venom you received.
Don’t eat or drink anything. The EMT’s will insert an intravenous needle. They will take you to a hospital. Make sure the hospital they take you to has antivenin.
Make sure the hospital mixes the antivenin before you get there. It can take up to 40 minutes to mix up a vial of antivenin, and you will probably need several. The sooner they start, the sooner it will be ready for you. And sooner is better.
Make sure the hospital is in contact with poison control.
You are now in the hands of professionals. Relax and enjoy the drugs.
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