It was a beautiful summer’s eve in Arlington last July, and Sara Stepahin was walking with her partner to see fireflies at Fort C.F. Smith. But at midnight, walking along the gravel path, she ran into a Copperhead snake that bit her in the big toe and then slithered away across her foot. “I’m not a stranger to pain: accidentally cutting my thumb off was way more upsetting, but I don’t think it was as painful,” Stepahin said. “Luckily I had my partner to help me as I was in so much pain I couldn’t walk.”
Stepahin got to the Emergency Room at Virginia Hospital Center right away in the pre-pandemic era, and they took her to Triage quickly, she said. The waiting room was full because Sunday night is always busy, but luckily, she said, the Charge Nurse in the ER looked at her file and took her into the ER within 10 minutes of arrival, telling Stepahin: “I’m from a big hospital where we see a lot of snake bites, and it’s good you came in right away.”
What happened after that is another story, but because of her experience, Stepahin had a lot of advice to those who might be unlucky enough to be bitten by a Copperhead.
Copperheads are abundant in the Arlington area. They look like they are wearing brown and tan camouflage. They will be even more present after a torrential rain. Sightings of Copperheads in the Arlington area have been high this summer, and not just along the Potomac; some residents in Country Club Hills have found the snakes in their garden. Dogs have also run across Copperheads in the woods, and one large snake was seen sunning itself on the rocks at Donaldson Run not far from the Nature Center.
Copperheads are primarily active just after dark, particularly on warm, rainy summer nights. But likely one of the main reasons residents are seeing more copperheads is simply because people are outside more, thanks to the pandemic.
The Copperhead bite, while painful, is not particularly toxic and death is extremely rare. According to the Virginia Herpetological Society, in Virginia, only about 1-2 people have died over 10 years or so from copperhead bites; most pets fully recover.
“I did not see the snake, however the pain was excruciating and my leg swelled quickly and intensely, “ said Stepahin. “I was bitten on my toe and the swelling eventually went all the way up to my knee. If you are bitten, go to the hospital immediately. This should become obvious when you start shaking and writhing around from the pain.”
“Insist they call poison control right away. Insist they give you pain medicine. This pain is crazy intense.”
“Wear closed toe shoes when you are out, especially at night, and get your flashlight out when it is dark and you can't see exactly where you are stepping,” said Stepahin. “We were busy looking at fireflies, but we should have been more cautious.”
“I hope this is helpful if you do ever experience a Copperhead bite. Sometimes the snakes do not inject poison, this is called a dry bite, so you could be the lucky one. Just let the hospital determine that.”
According to Georgetown University Medical Center, “MedStar Georgetown University Hospital sees about two to three snake bite patients every year and stocks more than enough antidote to treat additional patients. Also, area hospitals do share antidote if there is a need. The antidote is administered when symptoms of venom poisoning are present. Those symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tissue damage extending outside the bite itself, rapid heart rate or renal failure. How each snake bite patient is treated depends on the whole clinical picture for that individual. However, doctors agree there is no reason to withhold pain medication during treatment.”
Despite the frequency of snakebites in Virginia, there is still a great deal of ignorance about how to manage a bite from a poisonous snake. Part of the problem is the “TV lore” about snakebites. Never use a tourniquet and never cut an X at the site of the snake bite to open up the wound or suck out the venom. People who watched a lot of Westerns think of these techniques, both of which do more harm than good.
A survey of snakebite and health websites indicated the following basic guidelines in addition:
• Remove clothing or jewelry from the area near the bite as swelling will occur.
• Remain calm.
• Clean the bite, but do not flush with water.
• Use ice but just for five minutes on, five minutes off.
• Do not drink caffeine or alcohol, both of which enhance absorption of the venom.
• Leave the area and do not try to kill or capture the snake. A photo is nice, but not if it provokes a second bite.
• Snakes are more active at night and in warm weather. Avoid walking in high grass or uncleared bush. And remember snakes don’t just stay at ground level.
Take steps to avoid copperheads, which are docile rather than aggressive, and which perform a valuable role in keeping down rodent populations. Along with a flashlight for walking at night is a walking stick. Snakes do not have ears and cannot hear you coming, but they feel vibrations in the earth and will seek to get out of your way. They bite out of fear of you, not out of aggression.
• Don’t allow your yard to become overgrown
• Eliminate any hiding places, such as leaf and brush piles
• If you do encounter one, JUST LEAVE IT ALONE
• If bitten, call 911 or seek immediate medical attention.
Stepahin is an advocate of calling Poison Control as a good resource. There are two ways to get help from Poison Control. Use https://www.webpoisoncontrol.org/ to get help online, or call 1-800-222-1222. The National Capital Poison Center, founded in 1980, is an independent, private, not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization. The Center is accredited by the American Association of Poison Control Centers. The Center is not a government agency. Stepahin found that their advice can be helpful to the hospital in encouraging them to give the patient antivenin and painkillers.
Dogs can be victims of copperheads bites, especially if they are off leash. Keep your pet on a leash whenever possible and stay on trails, but if your dog is bitten by a venomous snake, you should know the contact information of the nearest emergency vet clinic. Experts advise not to give them Benadryl or other medications and to take them to a vet immediately.
The Hope Veterinary Center in Vienna, Va. is a resource. The Hope Veterinary Center carries antivenin for pets. https://hopecentervet.com
To learn more about snakes, poison control, and what to do if you or your dog is bitten: see: https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/snakebite.html and the National Snakebite Support Facebook page, to help dispel myths and obtain advice for humans and pets alike: https://www.facebook.com/groups/987850051297436/?ref=sharesnakes. To learn why you should not kill the snake that bit you, and why snakes are important to our ecosystem and are helpful to have in your parks and yards: see: https://wsed.org/why-we-should-not-kill-snakes/ and https://www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com/