by Whit Gibbons

May 22, 2016

This summer you can be certain that no matter where you go outside, snakes are close at hand. The good news is that even with a snake close at hand, the odds of a happy ending are significantly in your favor. Despite the mystique surrounding snakes, an encounter that ends badly can usually be avoided with a little common sense.

Snakes can be found almost anywhere in the country. Most northern states have fewer than two dozen kinds of snakes. Many southern states have more than 40, including six venomous ones. Help alleviate your snake anxiety by understanding just how unlikely you are to receive a life-threatening snakebite.

1. Probability of encountering a snake

The odds of even seeing a snake are generally low, not because snakes are not around but because they do not want to be seen by people. When you are in the woods, far more snakes will be aware of your presence than you will ever see.

2. Probability of the snake being venomous

In North America, harmless species always outnumber venomous ones. You are unlikely to encounter one of the pit vipers or coral snakes.

3. Probability of being bitten by a venomous snake

Like most other wildlife, snakes generally want nothing to do with humans and will quickly retreat if allowed to do so. Many, if not most, venomous snakebites in America occur after the victim has seen the snake and taken action of some sort, such as trying to kill it or pick it up. Don't blame the snake for that. You are in far greater peril of being attacked by a dog, falling from a horse or injuring yourself with a chain saw.

4. Probability of a serious bite

With proper safety precautions, your odds of encountering and then receiving a fatal snakebite are astonishingly low, but one of the least predictable features of venomous snakebite is quickly evaluating the seriousness of a bite. With more than half of U.S. snakebites, little or no venom is injected, causing only temporary discomfort to the victim. Such cases may not be serious even without treatment; nonetheless, medical attention should be sought immediately.

5. Probability of receiving improper treatment

Recommending proper treatment for venomous snakebites in advance is like advising what the best treatment should be for a future vehicle accident. It all depends on the circumstances.

Most victims of either unfortunate event may suffer minor problems and not need medical care. But seemingly uninjured travelers involved in a car wreck are often taken to a hospital as a precaution. Likewise, venomous snakebite victims, even those initially exhibiting no pain or discomfort, should receive medical evaluation.

Most first-response actions following a snakebite are second nature. Get the victim and everyone else away from the snake. It is not necessary to have the specimen to get medical treatment, so do not try to kill the snake or pick it up.

Remove any rings, watches and footwear from the patient where swelling might occur. Keep the person who has been bitten calm, and treat them for shock.

Getting emergency treatment quickly and safely is imperative if obvious swelling is apparent and the victim is in intense pain.

Last century's classic first-aid procedures of cutting at the site of the wound and using a tourniquet are no longer recommended by most medical authorities.

The prevailing wisdom is to get the victim to a medical facility as quickly as possible. Fortunately, modern understanding and treatment of snakebite far exceeds that of previous generations, so the odds of serious consequences are lowered.

Very important — have the doctor call the state poison control center, which will be knowledgeable about snakebite treatment.

In the face of technology and its myriad distractions, getting people to appreciate the outdoors is getting harder every year.

Let's not add an unnecessary psychological barrier to the process by making people afraid of a fascinating part of the natural world.

Educate yourself and others about snakes. Then get outside and enjoy nature.

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