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Copperheads are plentiful; bites costly and painful

2nd snakebite victim of spring is OK; experts urge caution

POSTED: May 26, 2012 11:30 p.m.
SARA GUEVARA | The Times/

Ginger Workman shows the three bites marks on her left ankle she received from a juvenile copperhead while walking her dog with a friend near her apartment.

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John Jensen has some good news and some bad news about copperhead snakes.

The bad news: They’re abundant and often found in suburban areas.

The good news: Their bite isn’t likely to kill you.

“Copperheads can live in a small little wood lot right next to a bunch of houses and seemingly do fine,” said Jensen, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources. “... They’re common, and they can tolerate a lot of disturbance.”

Ginger Workman of Gainesville certainly knows that’s true.

She’s the second copperhead victim in Hall County this month, bitten Monday night while in the parking lot of her apartment complex behind the Gainesville movie theater.

“Everybody keeps saying: ‘Were you hiking? Were you in the woods? Were you by the lake?’ And no, I was behind my car in the parking lot at the apartment complex,” she said.

Gaylord Lopez, director of Georgia Poison Center, said snakebite calls are definitely up this year statewide. This time last year, there were just fewer than 100 calls; this year, there have been 120 so far.

“In a given year we hover in the 300 range, call volumewise,” he said. “In terms of calls per year, we’re probably well on that pace to break 300 this year.”

And whereas the first call is usually seen in February or March, this year it was in the first week of January, he said. Lopez attributed that to the abnormally warm winter.

So far this year, though, the center has fielded three calls from Hall County. In the same period last year, they had fielded six. Those calls may include both venomous and nonvenomous snakebites. In 2011, there were nine calls total.
Lopez said of those calls, about 1 of every 4 require administering anti-venom.

Mohak Davé, vice chairman for the department of emergency medicine at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said the hospital usually sees three to four bites a year. There have been no fatalities in Georgia due to snakebites in the last couple of years, Lopez said.

Though the bite may not kill you, it is going to hurt.

“It certainly doesn’t feel good and doesn’t help your pocketbook when it comes to your hospital bills,” Jensen said. “But they don’t kill people.”

Lopez said hospital bills from snakebite treatment can run up to $250,000. Lopez said that total was for a patient the poison center dealt with last month.

Dave said the vials run $1,000-1,500 each. A victim could need upward of 30 vials. Workman said she took seven.

Of course when you’re bitten, you don’t have much choice but to get the treatment.

Davé said doctors will check for signs of shock, which can be dried skin and abnormal vital signs. They also typically will see pain and swelling at the site of the bite, and sometimes nausea. Those with severe bites can also experience low blood pressure and kidney problems.

Davé said it helps to know what kind of snake a person was bitten by, but he does not recommend trying to capture the snake.

“We’ll just use the history and the physical exam to determine such, but we always recommend that they don’t try to retrieve the snake,” he said. “And they should seek medical attention immediately if they have any physical signs, if they have severe pain or swelling.”

Workman was bitten three times on the ankle by a juvenile copperhead while walking her dog with a friend near her apartment.

“I thought I had stepped on a stick,” Workman said. “And I looked down and my foot was covered in blood, and there was a copperhead snake curled up beside it.”

She said her survival mode must have kicked in, but the pain later that night was excruciating.

Lopez said 15 to 20 percent of all bites are dry and inject no venom.

Jensen said multiple strikes are not uncommon with a copperhead, either.

Snakes will try to get away from you, but copperheads do not have a way to warn predators as rattlesnakes do, he said. They often are sitting in ambush mode, using their camouflage, waiting for prey.

“They just hope nothing sees them and their cover isn’t blown,” Jensen said.

But if a predator or human comes too close, the snake will strike in defense, and that could include multiple strikes.

Workman, though, is just glad it wasn’t worse. She was released from the hospital Wednesday night.

Davé said a snakebite victim likely will at least be observed overnight and could spend several days in the hospital, depending on the severity of the symptoms.

“I just praise God that the venom is working its way out of my body,” Workman said, praising her neighbors and the EMTs for helping her get quick medical care.

Jensen said to avoid copperheads, residents should reduce the cover provided in their yard in areas such as log piles, rock piles, trash and tall grass.

A snake can still be found on a perfectly manicured lawn, but they’re less likely to stick around he said.

He advised against using a powdered form of moth balls or using sulfur in a yard to deter snakes, saying people would need too much of the product for it to actually be effective.

“You’d have to put a dump truck load in a big circle around your yard, and every time it rained you’d have to replace it,” he said. “Those products are kind of waste of money in my opinion.”

He did advise keeping an eye out for snakes, which at this time of year are more likely to be active at night.

“Copperheads kind of switch their activity periods as it gets warmer, so now that it’s gotten good and hot, they’re more likely to be moving at night,” he said. “During the day, they’re going to be more likely to be just coiled up in an ambush position just sitting still.”

Watch where you’re going, take a flashlight at night and don’t wear flip-flops, he said.



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