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Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D. Headshot

Don't Get Rattled: Avoiding and Treating Rattlesnake Bites

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We are now entering the peak of rattlesnake season. In fact, there have been eight rattlesnake bites in Los Angeles County since April, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Statewide, 250 rattlesnake bites are reported each year, with more than 50 of them in Los Angeles County.

Eight species of rattlesnakes are California natives, and you may come across them on hiking trails or in your own backyard. The most common are the Western Diamondback and Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes, the latter being the species found in the Santa Monica Mountains. Sidewinders, Speckled, Red Diamond and Mojave rattlers are also found in parts of Southern California.

Take heart in two facts. First, rattlesnakes can mostly be dealt with by avoiding them. They generally do not strike unless they are cornered or otherwise feel threatened. Second, you probably already own the best emergency snake bite kit available: a cell phone from which you can call 9-1-1.

Forget all the heroics you've seen in the movies - and forget those snakebite kits you find in sporting goods stores. If a bite happens, the best thing to do is simply get safely to the emergency room.

If you do get bitten, don't panic. About one quarter of the bites are "dry" - that is, the snake does not inject the venom that causes most of the problems. The others are usually slow-progressing injuries. Treat the bite with very simple first aid. Gently wash the bitten skin with water and soap if available and elevate the affected arm or leg above the heart. Then, get to an emergency room as soon as you can.

The "don'ts" in this situation are equally as important to observe.

Don't pack the wound in ice. The bite will cause a tingling sensation, and burying your hand in a bucket of ice could lead to a case of frostbite.

Don't apply a tourniquet or constricting band. That can make matters worse by increasing necrosis (tissue death) and pressure in the area of bite.

Don't cut or slice the wound with any instrument. Many times, you can accidentally cut tendons or blood vessels. This also increases the risk of infection. Basically, it means when you get to medical professionals, they will have to treat you for a cut in addition to a snake bite.

Don't attempt to suck the venom out with your mouth as this increases the risk of infection. If you are going to be an hour or more away from an emergency room, you should consider taking a Sawyer Extractor snakebite kit with you. This kit includes a syringe-like device that can extract about half of the venom from the wound without causing bleeding or contamination.

Don't attempt to kill the snake. Many believe that you should kill a snake that's bitten you and present it to the paramedics so they can identify the snake and give the proper antivenom. Actually, antivenom are generally multipurpose - the same one is used to treat many snakebites. Trying to kill the snake may just result in more bites. Also, rattlesnakes help keep the rodent population under control and we should not disrupt the ecosystem any more than we have in creating the trails and spaces that we visit.

For avoiding rattlesnakes, here are the key do's and don'ts:

Don't try to pick up or play with a snake. That seems like a no-brainer, but most snake bites occur on the hands or arms - indicating that the victim was likely trying to get a closer look or touch the snake. As noted, rattlesnakes generally only get aggressive if they are cornered. If you encounter a snake, give it wide berth and walk away from it.

Do look before you leap. When hiking, don't put your hand or foot someplace you cannot see. If you come to a rock or a log in your path, step on to the obstacle then step down. This is better than stepping over the object because you can be sure to plant your foot on safe ground.

Don't let waste build up in your yard. Rattlers come into residential areas for two reasons: food and cover. Keep your yard free of piles of grass cuttings or trash and other places where mice or rats might nest. Plug gopher holes and keep garbage cans covered to eliminate potential food sources for snakes.

Do keep shrubs trimmed and eliminate large rocks or rubbish. This will give snakes fewer places to rest out of the sun. If your yard backs onto a canyon or other vacant area, clear a bare strip of at least 30 feet.

Don't hike alone.

Do wear loose trousers over boots or high-top shoes when hiking, especially in brush.

As a final word of warning, rattlesnakes sometimes lose their rattle when they shed or get in fights with other animals. Just because you don't see the rattle, doesn't mean the snake is friendly. Be cautious and respectful of any snakes you encounter in your summer adventures. Remember, we live in their backyards, not the other way around.