A Macon County man who was twice bitten by a poisonous snake died Sunday at East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika.
Relatives said 31-year-old Trent Leprette of the Little Texas community, was swimming in the Saugahatchee Creek, near Loachapoka, when he received a bite to each hand by a copperhead snake. It happened last Wednesday. Leprette, a former medical technician at the hospital, was given anti-venom but his condition worsened because he was allergic to snake venom.
Roger Birkhead, an Auburn University biologist, said most bites from copperhead snakes aren't fatal. He said snakes bites usually occur when people try to pick them up. He urges people to follow one simple rule: leave the snake alone and walk away.
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Can you identify poisonous snakes? It is always a good idea to become familiar with the poisonous snakes in your area, including the outdoor places you plan to visit.
Harmless snakes have round pupils (the black part in the center of the eye). Poisonous snakes have egg-shaped or cat-like pupils.
Poisonous snakes have a sensory area or pit on each side of the head. The pit looks like a nostril and is located between the eye and nostril.
Usually, poisonous snakes have a triangular head, wide at the back and narrow neck or "spade-shaped." But, many non-poisonous snakes can flatten their head when threatened and may appear poisonous.
Usually, rattlesnakes sound a warning rattle when approached from the "rattler" on their tale. However, many non-poisonous snakes (black racers, corn snakes, rat snakes, milk snakes and pine snakes) and several poisonous snakes (copperhead and cottonmouth) often vibrate their tails when threatened. The sound produced by this vibration often imitates a rattle or hissing sound when the snake is sitting in dry grass or leaves.
If you are bitten
Poisonous snakes, although uncommon to be seen, have been recorded in all states except Alaska.
If you are unsure about whether a snake is poisonous or non-poisonous, the best thing to do is to avoid it, and don't ever handle a snake even if you believe it to be dead because they have late muscle tremors and reflexes that can cause them to bite even after they are just killed. The bite of poisonous snakes are extremely painful and some are even fatal.
In some areas snakes should be respected and left alone to play their natural part in the ecosystem, which includes eating excess insects, rodents, rabbits and other small prey.
Treating and Preventing Venomous Bites
Types of Poisonous Snakes
Two families of venomous snakes are native to the United States. The vast majority are pit vipers, of the family Crotalidae, which include rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths (water moccasins). Pit vipers get their common name from a small "pit" between the eye and nostril that detects heat and allows the snake to sense prey at night. These snakes deliver venom through two fangs that the snake can retract at rest, but which spring into biting position rapidly. Virtually all of the venomous bites in this country are from pit vipers. Some Mojave rattlesnakes or canebrake rattlesnakes, for example, carry a neurotoxic venom that can affect the brain or spinal cord. Copperheads, on the other hand, have a milder and less dangerous venom that sometimes may not require antivenin treatment.
First Aid for Snakebites
Over the years, snakebite victims have been exposed to all kinds of slicing, freezing and squeezing as stopgap measures before receiving medical care. Some of these approaches, like cutting into a bite and attempting to suck out the venom, have largely fallen out of favor.
Many health-care professionals embrace just a few basic first-aid techniques. According to the American Red Cross, these steps should be taken:
- Wash the bite with soap and water.
- Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.
- Get medical help.
Some medical professionals, along with the American Red Cross, cautiously recommend two other measures:
- If a victim is unable to reach medical care within 30 minutes, a bandage, wrapped two to four inches above the bite, may help slow venom. The bandage should not cut off blood flow from a vein or artery. A good rule of thumb is to make the band loose enough that a finger can slip under it.
- A suction device may be placed over the bite to help draw venom out of the wound without making cuts. Suction instruments often are included in commercial snakebite kits.
Some bites, such as those inflicted when snakes are accidentally stepped on or encountered in wilderness settings, are nearly impossible to prevent, but experts say a few precautions can lower the risk of being bitten:
- Leave snakes alone. Many people are bitten because they try to kill a snake or get a closer look at it.
- Stay out of tall grass unless you wear thick leather boots, and remain on hiking paths as much as possible.
- Keep hands and feet out of areas you can't see. Don't pick up rocks or firewood unless you are out of a snake's striking distance. A snake can strike half its length.
- Be cautious and alert when climbing rocks.
How Not to Treat a Snakebite
Though U.S. medical professionals may not agree on every aspect of what to do for snakebite first aid, they are nearly unanimous in their views of what not to do. Among their recommendations:
- No ice or any other type of cooling on the bite. Research has shown this to be potentially harmful.
- No tourniquets. This cuts blood flow completely and may result in loss of the affected limb.
- No electric shock. This method is under study and has yet to be proven effective. It could harm the victim.
- No incisions in the wound. Such measures have not been proven useful and may cause further injury.