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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Rattlesnake Country

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Picture of Mojave Rattlesnake
A good friend of mine just took off on his annual outing to Texas, where he hunts for snakes with his friends, mostly at night (because that’s when the snakes are out in the open and moving around). After all these years, he finally asked me what he should do if bitten by a snake, particularly if he was far from care. Here’s my answer:

If you’re by yourself several miles or more from help, try first to identify the snake, taking care to not get bitten again in the process. If it is venomous or you think it’s venomous, then the best place for you to be is in a hospital where a doctor can administer antivenom if that treatment becomes necessary. For North American snakebites, the only likely field first aid therapies are immobilization of the bitten part, such as a splint and sling for a bitten hand or forearm. Suction devices, such as The Extractor, or “cut and suck” devices, such as razor blade-rubber suction cup combinations, have not been proven efficacious. An ice pack gently applied won’t do any harm, but immersion into a bath of ice water might compound the snakebite injury with frostbite.

If you need to walk to get to medical attention, then a splint on your leg may be impractical. Don’t waste time making a fancy arm splint – a sling will do. I would begin to walk, not run, toward help. If you travel for a few hours and nothing happens other than a bit of pain and swelling, you are probably going to do fine (unless the bite is from a Mojave rattlesnake or venomous coral snake, in which case severe medical manifestations can be delayed by a few hours in onset). Staying put and sweating it out doesn’t really accomplish anything and basically puts your outcome in the hands of fate. If you are so far from help that walking for a few hours isn’t going to accomplish anything, then you might wish to stay where you are and conserve your strength. Remember, if there is any chance that an envenomation is significant, seek medical attention as soon as possible, so that antivenom can be administered under the guidance of a qualified health care professional.

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About the Author

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

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