I felt the penetrating sting just above my ankle when I stopped to prune away the blackberry stems blocking the path. The dogs and I were on one of our morning rambles in the woods, and I leaned down to see if there was a wasp still attached to my sock. Instead, I saw the distinctive triangular head of a venomous snake. It was a brightly marked orange and tan copperhead, and its head was drawn tautly back to pop me again. I stepped away, not frightened, just incredulous. At least, I thought, it was just a copperhead, the least dangerous of the pit vipers found in Tennessee.
I had a long hike back to the house on my rural property, uphill on meandering paths that dodged the downed treetops and thickets. I called the dogs and maintained a calm pace as the burning sensation continued to spread from the bite. It wasn’t terribly painful, at least not yet.
At the house, I called my veterinarian. In his hands, my dogs have fared well from snakebites, and because I was much larger than they, I hoped he might tell me I had little to worry about. My thinking was that I could take something and lie down for a bit. Instead, he ordered me to get to an emergency room and tried to send someone to get me, an offer I dismissed, still unconvinced that my situation was worrisome.
About 35 minutes had passed since the bite before I finally walked into the small local hospital’s emergency room. By now, my face was flushing and my heart beginning to race, but I still thought I would be watched for a couple of hours and sent home.
“I’ve been bitten by a copperhead snake,” I said to the lady at the counter, feeling sheepish about how uninjured I looked.
The staff flew into high gear. I suddenly had drips in my arm. Phone calls were made and medical history was taken. I began to sweat, more and more profusely with a mounting nausea. In a bit, I became violently ill from both ends. Later, I learned this is not uncommon from copperhead bites.
I was loaded into an ambulance for a run to a bigger city’s hospital. Between bouts of being ill, I wanted to laugh from disbelief over the wailing sirens. Once I arrived at the hospital, anti-nausea medications took effect, but the pain of the bitten leg eventually became a dragon. A wasp sting hurts, and the pain from the injected venom builds for a few minutes before it begins to subside, but this pain never seemed to find that turnaround. The entire leg was finally possessed by it, and there was no position that offered relief. I had waved off pain meds previously but, by early afternoon, was grateful to get them.
Still, the doctors had given me hope that, after a night of antivenin, I might go home in the morning. The leg did not cooperate, and 36 hours after the bite, it was a hot, red, tight monster, with the swelling moving higher by the hour. Eventually, everything from the hip down was unrecognizable as my own flesh. Infection from the snake’s mouth set in, and treatment changed to high-powered antibiotics. By Monday morning, the medicines had begun to work their magic, and I was able to maneuver my huge, unfamiliar leg out of the bed and painfully hobble about.
I was bitten Friday morning, and it was Monday afternoon before I was allowed to go home. I made it through s snakebite only to nearly be killed in the frenzied melee of the canine welcoming party, though friends had taken good care of the dogs in my absence.
Yes, it was “just” a copperhead-a copperhead that taught me some respect.
My recent encounter with a copperhead has caused me to re-evaluate my cavalier attitude toward snakes. Many times, I have recited the phrase that a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be bitten by a venomous snake and believed that half the people bitten were “messing with them.”
Those statements are comforting, but in retrospect, I realize they take into account urban populations and suburban dwellers who rarely stray from a sidewalk. People who venture off the beaten path certainly increase their likelihood of being bitten.
Nor was I “messing” with the snake that bit me, except perhaps psychologically. Who knows what goes on in a snake’s brain, but because I stopped on the path to snip the thorny vines blocking my way, I suspect the snake thought it had been spotted. I think that if I had continued walking, I would have been spared.
I have always believed that snakes would warn you before striking, preferring not to waste their venom on something they could not eat. After my experience, I learned that copperheads don’t usually give warning and that copperhead bites are the most common. This is partly because of their numbers and likelihood of being found in places frequented by humans, but also it has been found that copperheads, when tested against rattlesnakes and water moccasins, are the most likely to inflict a bite. I would have thought that water moccasins would be most aggressive, as any of us who have spent time fishing have stories of being pursued by them. It turns out that the water moccasin’s combative behavior is intended to chase you away so that they do not have to resort to biting you. Rattlesnakes, of course, will rattle if given enough time to let you know you will be spared if you will retreat, though a surprised rattler may strike without warning.
If bitten, do not bother to capture or kill the snake to “bring with you” to the hospital. If the physicians decide to administer antivenin, they will use one that is effective for all three closely related snakes described above. The newer antivenin is made from sheep, not horses, and has fewer negative side effects.
Often, there is no need for antivenin at all. The decision to use it is based on the victim’s response to the bite. This is a complex evaluation determined by general physical response, such as heart rate, hypertension or nausea, plus rate of swelling and the lab results from drawn blood that indicate the hematologic reactions to the venom. After much research, I’m convinced the decision to give me several vials of antivenin was the right one.
In other words, no generalizations can be made about snakebites. Every incident has its unique consequences determined by the envenomation and the individual’s reaction to it. Death is extremely rare, so don’t panic, but do take it very seriously.
Carol Reese is an ornamental horticulture specialist with the UT Extension Service in Jackson, Tenn. She writes a weekly gardening and nature column for the Jackson Sun newspaper and contributes to other gardening magazines. She holds a master’s degree in horticulture from Mississippi State University. This article is republished with permission from Tennessee Out-of-Doors Magazine, published by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation.