Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Blue Jeans and Snakebite

When I was a medical student, I served a summer externship in 1975 with the Indian Health Service at Fort Belknap in Harlem, Montana. On some hot summer evenings, I went fishing at a place the locals called "Snake Lake," which was loaded with cutthroat trout, and surrounded by rocky outcroppings that were home to scores of rattlesnakes. I was advised to stay away from the rocks, and to always wear long pants.

In the December, 2009 issue of the Annals of Emergency Medicine (Ann Emerg Med 2009;54:830-836), there appeared an article reporting a study by Shelton Herbert, PhD and William Hayes, PhD entitled "Denim Clothing Reduces Venom Expenditure by Rattlesnakes Striking Defensively at Model Human Limbs." The purpose of the study was to determine whether ordinary clothing (denim material from blue jeans) interferes with the kinematics of venom delivery, thereby reducing the amount of venom injected by a typical snake into a (model) human limb.

The investigators used saline solution-filled gloves to simulate human limbs and elicited defensive bites from small and large southern Pacific rattlesnakes. Each snake was videotaped biting a bare glove and a denim-covered glove. The results were that the snakes injected significantly less venom into the denim-covered gloves than into the bare gloves, up to 60% reduction for the small snakes and 66% reduction for the large snakes. In all other bite-related parameters, the bite strikes were similar. The investigators felt that denim interfered with venom delivery and induced a high proportion of "dry" bites (no venom released), as well as harmless spillage of venom from the fangs of the snakes onto the surface of the denim cover. It was interesting to note that larger rattlesnakes struck more readilty, maintained longer fang contact during their bites, and delivered 26 to 41 times more venom into the gloves than did the small animals. It makes sense that larger snakes are more dangerous than are small snakes.

While it was not directly studied, it is logical to suggest that wearing long denim pants might be an effective way to reduce the severity of snakebites. Certainly, wearing short pants is not a wise idea in snake country. Other forms of clothing (e.g., high leather boots or other types of long pants) may be equally or more effective at deflecting a bite and preventing envenomation.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.