Movies do not get it right about treating rattlesnake bites

Every year, especially from April to October, California Poison Control System receives hundreds of calls related to rattlesnake bites and what to do about them.

Wildlife photographer Norm Williams ran across this rattlesnake on a trail just yesterday. Beware.

Most of what people think they should do was learned from movies — and the movies get this wrong all the time.

“If you get bit by a rattlesnake and do any of the things you’ve seen done in the movies you will only make things worse,” said Dr. Rais Vohra, Medical Director for the Fresno/Madera Division of CPCS. “For example, the movies love showing a cowboy, though it could be anyone, sucking the venom out of a rattlesnake bite. That’s a great dramatic visual, but it’s actually a bad thing to do. It’s not effective and could be harmful.”

Movies do this — your shouldn’t!
• Using a tourniquet
It doesn’t effectively reduce the spread of venom and can actually cause damage to body tissues and other serious complications.
• Sucking out the venom
It isn’t effective and can let the venom enter your bloodstream through cuts or sores in your mouth, or you might swallow it.
• Using a suction device
The devices have not been shown to improve the outcome of any poisoning and may cause more injury and damage to local blood vessels.
• Cutting or making incisions over the bite wound
It doesn’t drain out the venom or relieve pressure on the area and may cause more injury or cause an infection.
• Freezing or applying ice to the bite
It won’t stop the spread of venom and could cause tissue damage or frostbite injury on top of the snakebite injury.

“Rattlesnakes usually avoid humans which make the odds of being bitten by one low, especially if you take the right precautions,” said Vohra. “But if you, someone else, or your pet are bitten by a rattlesnake there are some important things you should do.”

Do this if bitten
• The first thing to do is get to a hospital as quickly as possible. Call 911 immediately.
• Call the Poison Hotline at (800) 222-1222 for additional advice.
• Remain calm; don’t panic and restrict your movement(s).
• Keep the bite site below your heart level to reduce the flow of venom.
• Remove constricting items or jewelry, such as rings, because the affected area may swell.
• If your pet is bitten, contact your veterinarian.

Many now carry rattlesnake anti-venom and vaccines for dogs and other pets. Remember: Severe or even life-threatening symptoms may occur within minutes or couple of hours after a rattlesnake bite. It can produce extreme pain and swelling at the bite location, excessive bleeding, nausea, swelling in the mouth and throat making it difficult to breathe, lightheadedness, drooling, collapse, and shock. In rare cases, a bite can also be fatal.

“This is why getting medical treatment as soon as possible after a rattlesnake bite is critical,” adds Vohra. “But prevention is better than treatment when it comes to snakebites.”

Rattlesnake bite prevention 
• When hiking outdoors, wear protective gear and pay attention to your surroundings.
• Hike with a buddy.
• Carry a fully charged mobile phone and let people know where you plan to hike and how long you will be gone.
• If you spot a rattlesnake, stay away.
• Do not touch or disturb the snake, even if it appears dead.
• Look after children and keep dogs and other pets on a leash.
• Stay on trails, away from underbrush and tall weeds.
• Carefully inspect logs or rocks before sitting on them.

To learn more about rattlesnake safety, visit the CPCS website and see these CPCS videos: English and Spanish.

About CPCS
Call Poison Control at (800) 222-1222 (number is the same in all states) for questions about poison encounters. Trained pharmacists, nurses and other providers are available to help 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The service is free, confidential and interpreters are available. Get weekly tips about safety by texting TIPS to 20121 for English or texting PUNTOS to 20121 for Spanish. Follow CPCS on Facebook and on Twitter @poisoninfo. CPCS is part of the University of California San Francisco School of Pharmacy and is responsible to the California Emergency Medical Services Authority.