Most rattlesnake bites contain hemotoxic elements which damage tissue and affect the circulatory system by destroying blood cells, skin tissues and causing internal hemorrhaging. Rattlesnake venom also contains neurotoxic components which immobilize the nervous system, affecting the victim's breathing, sometimes stopping it. Most rattlesnakes have venom composed primarily of hemotoxic properties. Baby rattlesnakes and the Mojave rattler are the exception; they have venom which contains more neurotoxic properties than hemotoxic which makes them very dangerous. The sea snake, coral snake, and cobra family of snakes also have venom with dominant neurotoxic characteristics. (Brown, 1997).
Current statistics have indicated that more rattlesnake bite victims are showing symptoms of neurotoxic venom than in previous years. This leads to the question "Is rattlesnake venom becoming more neurotoxic?" Reasearch is being conducted to understand why we are seeing more neurotoxic systems in victims. Read more about this topic.
Symptoms of a Rattlesnake Bite
- One or two puncture marks
- Pain, tingling or burning at the area of the bite
- Swelling at the area of the bite
- Bruising and discoloration at the site of the bite
- Nausea, weakness and lightheadedness.
- Difficulty breathing
First Aid for Snakebites
(This first aid for snakebites information was provided by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Red Cross)
According to the American Red Cross, these steps should be taken:
- Wash the bite with clean water and soap.
- Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.
- If the bite is on the hand or arm remove any rings, watches or tight clothing.
- Get medical help immediately.
Most bites don't occur in isolated situations where the victim may be a long distance from medical help. However if they do, some medical professionals, along with the American Red Cross, cautiously recommend two other measures:
- If a victim is unable to reach medical care within 30 minutes, a bandage, wrapped two to four inches above the bite, may help slow venom. The bandage should not cut off blood flow from a vein or artery. A good rule of thumb is to make the band loose enough that a finger can slip under it.
- A suction device may be placed over the bite to help draw venom out of the wound without making cuts. Suction instruments often are included in commercial snakebite kits.
How NOT to Treat a Snakebite
Snakebite first aid methods are not always agreed upon by U.S. medical professionals, but they are nearly unanimous in their views of what NOT to do.
- NO ice or any other type of cooling on the bite. Research has shown this to be potentially harmful.
- NO tourniquets. This cuts blood flow completely and may result in loss of the affected limb.
- NO electric shock. This method is under study and has yet to be proven effective. It could harm the victim.
- NO incisions in the wound. Such measures have not been proven useful and may cause further injury.
Treatment of venomous snakebites is often controversial, even within the medical profession. In all cases contact medical help immediately if treatment is needed.
More on Rattlesnake
Several cases have been reported where neurotoxic symptoms occurred when the victims where bitten by nonneurotoxic rattlesnake species. Researchers have several theories to explain how it may be possible for a rattlesnake's venom to become more neurotoix and therefore more dangerous.
Researchers are not sure what has caused the shift in the composition of rattlesnake venom to include both hemotoxic and neurotoxic components. Interbreeding of the Mojave Rattlesnake (a neurotoxic species of rattler) with hemotoxic rattlers is one theory. Other theories support the coevolution of predator and prey. Many of the hemotoxic rattler's prey (squirrels, mice, and other small animals) have a gene to make them more resistent to hemotoxic venom. Only rattlesnakes with more neurotoxin will be able to feed on the hemotoxic-resistent animals, thus making those rattlers with Neurotoxic venom stronger and more likely to survive.
"Whether the apparent shift to more neurotoxic venom in rattlesnakes is attributable to snake demographics, to hybridization and gene flow, or to the coevolution of predator and prey, doctors must now use much more antivenom to treat bites. (Steve Grenard, 2000)"
"There are two types of antivenin (sometimes called "antivenom") in use today. They are derived from antibodies created in the blood of a horse or sheep when the animal is injected with snake venom. In humans, antivenin is injected either through the veins or into muscle, and it works by neutralizing snake venom that has entered the body. The first antivenin, derived from horse blood, was introduced in the United States in 1954. Because this antivenin is obtained from horses, snakebite victims who are sensitive to horse proteins must be carefully managed. The danger is that they could develop an adverse reaction or even a potentially fatal allergic condition called anaphylactic shock.
"Newer kinds of antivenins derived from sheep have been studied, and one (CroFab) is now licensed for use in the United States. This sheep antibody preparation has been digested with an enzyme to reduce the risk of allergic reactions. The enzyme treatment also allows the antivenin to be cleared from the body more rapidly, so that additional treatments may need to be given." (www.FDA.gov)
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