There are three venomous species of snakes in Pennsylvania: the northern copperhead (left), eastern massasauga rattlesnake, and timber rattlesnake. All three are species of pit vipers.
How to react is simple. Steer clear of any snake! Snakes can strike from a distance equal to about half their length. So give them a wide berth and more importantly, give them respect.
How do I identify a venomous snake?
According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boating Commission, all Pennsylvania native venomous snakes possess:
- an indentation or pit on each side of the head between the eye and nostril,
- a vertically elliptical eye pupil resembling that of a cat
- a single row of scales on the underside of the tail.
The Commission has a great graphic here that illustrates these distinctions .
What are the symptoms of a copperhead or rattlesnake bite?
- Severe burning pain at the bite site.
- Two small puncture wounds about 0.25 inches to 1.5 inches apart (however, a single fang mark is possible). If the snake has struck multiple times, there can be multiple fang marks.
- Swelling that starts within five minutes and progresses up the extremity in the next hour. Swelling can continue to advance up the limb for several hours.
- Discoloration and blood filled blisters.
- In severe cases: nausea, vomiting, sweating, weakness, bleeding, coma and death.
What if someone gets bitten by a copperhead or rattlesnake?
This review is limited to the pit viper species found in our area. Outside of our area you must do research specific to the species and the treatments necessary. If someone in your party does get bitten by a copperhead or rattlesnake, immediately get away from the snake. Do not try to capture or kill it. Do not panic. According to the Wilderness Medical Society, you should:
- Get the patient (and everyone) away from the snake. They can strike more than once. Do not even touch a dead snake, they can bite reflexively for up to an hour after death.
- Do not attempt oral suction or incising the skin. Suction is not effective.
- If there are immediate, severe symptoms, keep the victim quiet. Activity increases absorption. Send for help immediately. In PA call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. (And 911).
- Start to evacuate all victims at once. To be effective, antivenin is best given within 4-6 hours after the bite.
- Use a sling or a splint to loosely immobilize the affected limb.
- If there is no immediate reaction, start to walk slowly with the victim to the trailhead. Sending for help can take longer than walking for help. Do not wait to see if symptoms develop. Evacuate the site immediately and get to a hospital.
Warning - Do not:
- Use cold or ice
- Use the cut and suck method
- Use mouth suction
- Use electric shock
- Use a tourniquet
- Use alcohol or any drug
- Use aspirin
- Use any suction device
This article is a primer, intended for information purposes. It is not intended to replace real training. If you would like to learn more about this subject and be prepared to react in an emergency, you should enroll in a wilderness first aid class. Resources for this article include:
Wilderness First Aid, Emergency care for Remote Locations; Third Edition; 2008 Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
Snakes in Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission online version at http://www.fish.state.pa.us/factsnake.htm