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What to do if you get bit by a copperhead snake

In late summer of 2020, Sarah McDaniel was enjoying a pool day with her family and friends when she heard her then 3-year-old daughter Alison yell out in pain. Ali was walking up the steps to the patio, so Sarah figured she had stubbed her toe. But she was screaming and crying in a way that told Sarah the pain was serious.

“I ran up to see what was going on, and my friend said, ‘She’s been bit. I think it was a copperhead,’” Sarah said. The friend had spotted a small snake that looked like a twig, which had slithered into the grass. “I panicked. My mind went a hundred different places at once.”

Sarah, who works at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC), knew her daughter would need medical care. She called the pediatrician’s office, and the on-call nurse practitioner instructed them to go straight to the emergency room.

By the time they reached the UNC pediatric emergency department, Alison’s foot was swollen and bruised.

“At that point, the ER doctor was in contact with poison control, sharing her vital signs and what the bite looked like,” Sarah said. “The whole experience was nerve-wracking.”

Although terrifying, the McDaniels’ experience is not unique: North Carolina North Carolina leads the country in snake bites, and we see an uptick of bites in the summertime, as more people spend time outdoors (and as more baby copperheads are born).

Be on the lookout for copperheads

Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix) are one of the most common venomous snakes in our area. Like rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and water moccasins, copperheads are pit vipers, common in the eastern United States and across much of the country. With reddish-brown crossbands and a lighter colored body, copperheads are well-camouflaged and often blend into their surroundings.

Copperheads look similar to other, non-venomous snakes, so it can be a challenge to identify them. Thankfully, Sarah was able to snap a pic before heading to the ER so the doctors could confirm the snake’s species.

A copperhead snake bite can range from mild to severe. While most copperhead bites are not life-threatening, they can be very painful, and they require immediate medical attention.

Some copperhead bites require antivenom treatment, and others (dry bites, or non-venomous bites) require only evaluation and observation by a doctor.

For the McDaniels, antivenom ended up being the right treatment. With Alison comfy in bed with pillows, a lollipop, and Frozen on an iPad, the doctors gave her one vial through an IV, and her symptoms improved quickly. The swelling reduced, and Ali’s pain improved. Doctors then kept her overnight to monitor her vital signs and make sure she felt better.

Antivenom can be very expensive – up to $100,000 for a dose of four to six vials. Remember, Blue Cross NC covers copperhead snake bite care and the antivenom. It’s typically considered emergency care, and co-pays and deductibles according to a member’s plan apply.

“When the bill came, I thought, ‘Well, this is why we have insurance. It was just a fraction of what it would’ve cost, and I was able to use my HSA to cover that,” Sarah said.

Like all parents, Sarah knows how hard it can be to keep little kids in shoes. But she does encourage her two children to wear lightweight, close-toed shoes rather than flip flops while playing outside, especially during “snake season.”

As for Alison, the whole experience is now just a great story to tell.

“It was a long day for us all,” Sarah said. “We tried to keep her off her foot for another 24 hours. After that, she was ready to jump on the trampoline again, no looking back!”

Symptoms of a venomous snake bite

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), signs and symptoms of a snake bite may include the following:

  • Puncture marks where you were bit
  • Redness, swelling, and bleeding around the wound
  • Pain and tenderness, sometimes severe, at the bite area
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing (in severe cases, breathing may stop)
  • Rapid heart rate, weak pulse, low blood pressure
  • Vision problems
  • A weird taste in your mouth
  • Sweating
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Muscle twitching

What should you do if you get bit?

According to experts at Duke Health and UNC Medical Centers, you should seek care at an emergency department right away after a bite. Even if you don’t know what kind of snake bit you, assume all bites are venomous snake bites for your safety. If you don’t have anyone who can drive you to the emergency room, dial 911 or your local Emergency Medical Services. You should not try to drive yourself after you are bit, as you may become dizzy or pass out.

After a bite, the CDC also recommends that you:

  • Take a photograph of the snake, if you can do so from a safe distance, to help physicians determine the species of snake. (Do not try to handle the snake).
  • Remove rings, watches or other jewelry near the affected area, since you may experience swelling.
  • Wash the bite gently with soap and water.
  • Avoid taking painkillers, including aspirin and ibuprofen.
  • Do not apply ice or a tourniquet, and do not try to suck out the venom.

You can also call NC Poison Control at 800-222-1222 for guidance, or call your local poison center if you live outside of North Carolina.

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