Venom Myths?

A police officer looks over the trains involved in a two train Muni crash at the West Portal Station in San Francisco on Saturday July 18, 2009. (AP Photo/Contra Costa Times, Karl Mondon)
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A study published in the latest edition of The New England Journal of Medicine refutes popular treatment for venomous snakebites.

Dr. Robert Barish, co-author of the study on treating snakebites, says a victim should seek the nearest hospital when first bit. The associate dean at the University of Maryland's medical school believes there are a number of myths about snakebites. The first is that victims are going to die immediately from a bite, which, he says, is not true.

There are only five or six deaths in the U.S. from snakebites a year. The study says that there is plenty of time following even the most venomous snakebite to seek medical help. Deaths occur anywhere from 6 to 48 hours after a bite.

"I had always thought from my days in the Boy Scouts that you are supposed to cut and suck the wound, and make a tourniquet," said Dr. Barish. "None of this is important, and, in fact, these treatments can be harmful. The best treatment for a snakebite is to have a set of car keys and get yourself to the hospital."

Hospitals have new anti-venin treatment that seems to be more effective and cause fewer side effects than older ones.

"If they don't have it, they're able to get the anti-venin. Because a lot of physicians don't have a lot of experience dealing with snakebites, there's always 24-hour help on local poison control lines to help the physician," said Dr. Barish.

The doctor said a study done in Arizona showed most people can get to a medical center within 90 minutes from anywhere in the country. If a person delays treatment by cutting and sucking the wound, they're worse off. Even if you are bitten by a venomous snake, 25 percent of the time it is a dry bite, which means no venom is injected, according to the study.

The first thing to do if bitten is to get away from the snake as fast as possible because they can bite multiple times. Second, try to remain calm. Dr. Barish says the most important thing is not to delay help by trying all the folklore.

Dr. Barish says the best defense against snakebites is avoidance. Snakes strike as a defensive mechanism rather than offensive. However, wearing the right clothes and staying calm can help one avoid bites if encountered by a snake.

Snakes target fingers, hands and feet 98 percent of the time. So, hikers or visitors to the woods are advised not to put their hands in crevices they can't see into. Wearing boots are recommended because they protect the feet and ankles.

Most snakebites have been recorded in the Southwest part of the U.S. and in the South. Dr. Barish says there is also the dangerous Eastern Diamondback. In the West there are many rattlers. The main effect of the bites is clotting, which means the bite victim can bleed a lot. The Mojave rattler is notorious for the neurotoxicity of its venom.

The doctor also warns that the underground market to collect exotic snakes caused deaths in the past. Experts recommend that exotic snakes should not be bought as pets.