Copperhead season: what NOT to do if bitten

By Kristin Wenger

Special to the Rappahannock News

Temperatures are on the rise, and so are calls to the Blue Ridge Poison Center about snake bites.

Rappahannock County is home to two kinds of poisonous snakes: the brightly-colored copperhead, which is common everywhere (and responsible for the majority of bites); and the timber rattlesnake, which prefers more isolated, mountainous terrain.

Courtesy image
The brightly-colored copperhead, which is common everywhere (and responsible for the majority of bites).

Snakes only bite to defend themselves as a last resort. When threatened, they prefer to escape or to remain still, blending in with their surroundings. But if they decide to bite, they can move lightning-fast.

According to Dr. Christopher Holstege, medical director of the poison center, many snake bites happen when the victim is taunting or trying to catch or kill the snake.

“If you see a snake,” he advises, “back up. Stay away from it. Don’t jab at it with a stick or try to kill it. Just go around it.”

Courtesy image
The timber rattlesnake, which prefers more isolated, mountainous terrain.

The poison center recommends additional tips to avoid a bite: Wear boots when walking in tall grass, leafy forests, or other snake habitats. Sandals or bare feet put you at potential risk.

Also, snakes are attracted to areas that provide them with cover and shelter. Remove log or trash piles close to your house. Keep the grass or other vegetation near your house closely mowed or trimmed.

If someone is bitten by a venomous snake — stay calm. Deaths from copperhead or rattlesnake bites are extremely rare. The most important action is to get the victim to a healthcare facility as soon as possible so they can receive medical care for the pain, swelling, and other symptoms.

If possible, wash the bite wound with soap and water, and remove any tight clothing or jewelry to allow for swelling, which may be severe. Dr. Holstege advises: “Don’t believe what you see in the movies! There are many myths and folk remedies which have not been shown to have any beneficial effect on the victim’s outcome and in fact may cause more harm.”

In other words, do not apply a tourniquet; do not apply ice or use an ice bath; do not cut the wound; do not use any form of suction; do not give the victim alcohol or drugs; do not give the victim an electric shock.

Most importantly, do not try to catch or kill the snake. This may result in another snakebite victim.

“The doctor does not need to see the snake in order to treat you. All venomous snake bites in Virginia are treated with the same antivenom, if necessary,” the doctor adds.

The experts at the Blue Ridge Poison Center are standing by 24 hours a day, every single day, to help you in the event of a snake bite or any other suspected poisoning. Your call is free and confidential: 1-800-222-1222.

— Wenger is with the Blue Ridge Poison Center at the University of Virginia Health System.

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55 Comments

  1. Some folks think that snakes are for killing, but I let them live.
    Snakes are great to have around for rodent control.
    If there is a venomous snake at my house, I catch it and take it to an isolated area.
    If (for some reason) I can’t get it, there is a local Zoo that will come collect it and relocate it for me. They did this a few weeks ago with a huge Snapping Turtle that was in my yard.

  2. Advice to residents/visitors/guests:
    Wear tall boots. Leave the wildlife alone . . . or move back to the city. And yes, water moccasins, Agkistrodon piscivorus, are aggressive and venomous. Leave them alone . . . or move back to the city. If your local medical provider doesn’t know this . . . move back to the city . . . Or just move back to the city . . .

  3. Just an FYI. These snakes are “venomous” Not “poisonous”. Poison is ingested. Venom is injected or absorbed through the skin. ;-)

  4. I used to live on ten acres of California mountainside. Rattlesnakes everywhere including the very nastily venomed Mojave Green rattlesnake (IIRC, it has three different venoms, one of which eats flesh, and one attacks the nervous system. I have read in many places that a positive identification is necessary with these snake bites, I think because it does require a specialized, expensive, antivenom.

    Anyhow, my rule was, if it is well off in the bush, leave it alone, keep well away. For snakes near my livestock or house, (I found one in my garage once, another in the dog kennel) I kept a .38 stubby loaded with shotshells.

    I was also plagued by ground squirrels. I bought a large “you can enter but not leave” wire trap and placed it between my garage door and my workshop door. Three hours later, there were 15 squirrels and a 5′ diamondback inside it. I guess he thought I had left out a larder full of tasty food, but he got the lead shot treatment instead.

    • You don’t have diamondbacks in Southern California…at least where the Mojave Green is located. Southern Pacific rattlesnake would be more likely. The reason you had snakes it because you had 15 squirrels on the property……you killed a valuable part of the ecosystem and now you can live with the 40 or 50 bubonic plague ridden squirrels that will now live because you felt the need to destroy something you could have just moved to another area……..

  5. My sister was bit by a water moccasin. The hospital gave her Benadryl. They said the anti-venom can be worse than the snake bite….. it affects your organs

  6. Rule for the day! Also Don’t take safe selfies with venomous snakes! Especially if your going to stick you tongue out in the direction of its fangs! ER nurse here, I had a patient who did this! The patients dad brought the snake in the ER. And We don’t want them for idenfication! Now that was quite the day! Poor snake, it’s last day was being decapitated on a helipad!

  7. Living in Alabama, both snakes are common plus the water moccasin. I was weeding eating my electric fence line one hot July day, and just happened to look down, as I was on a hilly wooded area, and noticed the leaves moving in front of me. That would have been my next step, it was a copperhead, crawling, the leaves were not moving, but it was his coloring that I saw. Scared the crap out of me. Those dudes were just like the VC were in Vietnam.

  8. They bite me, I die! I see them, they die! That is a little deal we have had for 70 years. Doesn’t matter what kind!!

  9. Ok, you’re in the back country Hiking . You’re bitten by a poisons snake. medical help is days away. What do you do to lesson your chances to die? Oh call the poison control center isn’t going to happen. I’ll stick to my military training thank you.

    • I do a lot of hiking in the mountains. What does your military training tell you to do in case of a venomous snakebite?

    • And just what is it the Military says? Is ther an article, a blog, a website that may address the “Miltary way” of handling of this predicament? Please feel free to share it!

    • As a professional snake handler/remover, I can assure you that this does ZERO good. If it did, I’d be doing it constantly for people. In fact, there is NO substance you can use to deter snakes. Not the snake-away crap, not moth balls. The napthalene in these products has been shown to do little, if anything for snakes. It does repel bugs, and people.

  10. I got bit on the finger trying to catch a Copperhead in Hilton Head SC and I went directly to the hospital and they could NOT give me any antivenom without the snake they said, so they just gave me a tetanus shot and pain medication and told me to keep it elevated until the swelling went down (like 2 months later) so it could be filtered out thru my lymph nodes :)

    • That hospital was literally retarded. I work in ems and all training we have received says they do not need not want the snake.

      • No, copperhead bites are not even treated with anti venom sometmes. Of course, it should be treated by a professional.
        Small children are more at risk

    • My Mom’s boyfriend got bit by a rattler back in the mid-’60s. He went in, got his .22 and shot the snake before driving himself several miles to the hospital. The hospital wouldn’t treat him without the snake. His cousin had to go back out to his house, kill the snake and bring it to the ER before the doctors would treat him.

  11. we have a decent size pond here in central va…I have noticed twice a 3ft snake what appears to be a copperhead…markings etc is this possible that it swims and lurks in around my pond?

    • Likely a brown water snake – similar markings and coloring. I’ve never seen copperheads swimming.

      • Copperheads will indeed swim and most of the time they will breed in the water. I’ve fished long enough to have seen them in water.

    • Central and eastern VA also have the Water Moccasin. They are not normally west of the fall line… So Richmond and east of there you can see them. There are normally only these 3 types of poisonous snakes in VA.

        • Keith was right. There are only 3 venomous snakes in VA.

          Venomous Snakes of Virginia
          All three venomous snakes of Virginia are pit vipers – the Northern Copperhead, Timber (or Canebrake) Rattlesnake, and the Eastern Cottonmouth.

    • Copperheads will swim if forced but do not like to hangout in the water, It Most likely is a brown water snake . They are marked similar to a copperhead it is a means of natural defense. However they are aggressive and will bite you. Their bite will make you sick to your stomach.

      • Nonvenomous water snakes have no venom, therefore their bite will have no effect other than punching tiny holes in your skin. Any nausea felt is due to the adrenaline from being frightened.

      • I fired at a 4.5′ Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake crossing a small canal once in south Florida, missed and subsequently found it coiled up, UNDER the water approx. 2 feet from shore?! She dead.

  12. My cats drag in snakes to the house about once a week. They kill both non-venomous and venomous snakes alike. Not sure how they keep from being bit themselves, but so far so good. No problems. I do like that they are the first defense against snakes. I stay out of areas where there are likely to be snakes, but see plenty of them in my mowed yard and driveway! I once started my van and had a six foot long black snake slither out from under the front seat and through a hole where the gas pedal is. Surprised me more than scared me. I’m not afraid of snakes at all, but do respect them – having been bit when I reached under a park bench to retrieve my backpack and found a snake had claimed it first. I see no reason to let Copperheads and Rattlesnakes live in area where there are children, or anyone who might be at risk from a bite.

    • The reasons include things like rodent control and tick control. What’s that, you said? Rodents are a primary source of the Lyme disease that ticks then carry and pass on. A single rattlesnake eats enough mice in a week to also eat/prevent 300-400 ticks from being part of that ecosystem. Now, which are you MORE likely to get bitten by, and sick from?

  13. Yeah, those snakes are venomous not poisonous… Rappahannock County is home to two kinds of poisonous snakes

  14. I was biten while mowing my yard. Darn snake was in a Japanese cherry tree and hit me on my upper left bicep. At first it felt like I had been cut with a razor, then I thought maybe a bee sting. After seeing it still in the striking position, I went inside to get my glock. After returning it was goa. Canvassed the area with negative results. Had a few drinks and felt better.

  15. One of the most beautiful snake we have in Virginia. IT is easy to stay safe. When in nature, in places where they live, don’t act like you are in your living room. Don’t put your feet or hands in places where you cannot see. Look first. Don’t try to handle, harm or kill them. Those activities account for the overwhelming majority of bites….. If you want to shoot them, do it with a camera. They are beautiful, amazing creatures, and important components of their ecosystems. ….. Have no fear of them “coming after you.” They will not. If you do not harass them, they will do one of two things: they will stay still, depending on camouflage, so as to be overlooked, or they will flee. Timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) will do the same, only they are even more docile. However, you are much less likely to see one. Their ranges are much more constrained than copperheads.

    • Not entirely true. I have many snakes on my property and have had one recently that did in fact come straight for me on a mission. I had previously tried to remove this snake and apparently they have recollection. Anyway when it saw I was swiftly retreating it then changed direction into the nearest bush.

  16. I had to kill a copperhead 2 years ago , when I came down my back steps. And I turned to see what my cats were staring at and the copperhead stuck me at my boot flap areas and didn’t pinitrate ! But it came fro. My neighbors yard and she is blind with a curios two year old daughter running around , typically I would never harm a snake . when working for the school board I removed many snakes without harming them , but when I saw where he came from and the fact that he struck at me ,I had to end his life ,but a hawk eat well that day !

    • Good on you,mate . Don’t just kill em randomly but sometimes it is a needed precaution for someone’s protection.

    • I’ve killed 3 Copperheads in the past 2 years. One was part way in the house when my wife closed the door on it. It was on the hinge side of the door with its head and a couple of inches of its body in the house. Cut its head off with a knife, then opened the door to find another 2 1/2 feet of it on the front porch. Killed one with a shovel and one with the lawnmower. I killed many moccasins and one rattler when I was a teen. I have no use for them and have no problem killing them if they are venomous.

      • This is both ignorant and shows an incredible disrespect for other species that share this planet with us. As another poster noted, snakes are incredibly useful to humans (though even if they weren’t, killing them would be inappropriate in most scenarios. I know of a quite a few humans who aren’t “useful” but I still wouldn’t kill ’em.). Snakes’ diet consists of reptiles and rodents. Rodents carry numerous diseases that are spread to humans via a number of vectors. Without snakes, you get more rodents and more diseases. A bite from a timber rattlesnake or copperhead will almost certainly not cause you harm for more than a couple days. Lyme disease or hantavirus on the other hand…

      • I used a suction tool called “The Extractor” (Sawyer Products Inc.) to remove a large amount of venom from a bite on my wife’s leg. The extractor pulls the venom out through the punctures. No need to cut. Others in the county who received similar bites, but no treatment, suffered mightily—extreme pain, swelling, extensive necrosis (blackened skin)—for MANY months. My wife went to work the next day with no more discomfort than a bad insect bite. We did go to the ER. They were amazed. I am told the Rescue Squad now carries The Extractor. This article’s advice to not use suction on a snake bite is DEAD WRONG! Get a Sawyer Extractor—they are inexpensive—keep it handy. It works. I proved it.

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