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As summer approaches and many Tennesseans go outdoors for hiking and boating and other warm-weather activities, snakes will emerge as well. Vanderbilt University Medical Center medical toxicologist John Benitez, associate professor of clinical medicine and emergency medicine, offers tips for avoiding these reptiles and what to do if bitten.
“While snakes are not generally dangerous to humans, they will strike when threatened,” said Benitez. “In Tennessee, we see around 50 bites per year. So far this year, the Tennessee Poison Center has received 35 calls about snake bites. Though the odds of dying from a snake bite are not high, the best way to avoid a worst-case scenario is to know the different types of snakes we have in the area, where they are likely to be encountered and what to do when bitten.”
Benitez said the rattlesnake, copperhead and water moccasin are the three venomous snakes native to Tennessee.
Rattlesnakes are the most easily identifiable, he said. They have a rattle at the end of their tail which they shake in agitation or warning.
Copperheads are rust colored with golden-tan bands and prefer open fields or lightly wooded areas as habitats. Benitez notes that they are frequently found in farmlands and are likely the most commonly encountered by humans.
If bitten, Benitez details what to do:
• Call the TPC at (800) 222-1222.
• Remain calm. The venom of the snakes endemic to Tennessee is not highly potent, so there is time to seek appropriate treatment—but if envenomation does occur, panicking will elevate your heart rate, increasing the speed at which the venom moves through your body.
• Monitor symptoms so they can be described to medical professionals.
• Do not try to extract the venom by sucking on or cutting into the wound.
• Avoid applying a tourniquet to the affected limb — this could result in loss of the limb due to lack of blood flow.
• Do not try to find the snake after the bite; while it is helpful to have a description, it is not necessary.
Once at a treatment facility, the bite will be evaluated for potential envenomation and infection. Benitez says that the only treatments generally necessary, beyond general wound care, might be treatment with antivenom, which blocks the snake’s venom from having any negative effects, and a tetanus shot to prevent tetanus infection.