Allison Davis never saw the snake that bit her.
“I was pulling out some monkey grass, and suddenly there was a sharp pain on the little finger of my hand,” the Mountain Brook Elementary School teacher recalled.
Swelling began in her fingers and then spread to the top of her hand and her wrist.
“It felt like there were 100 bees stinging me,” Davis said in a release from UAB. “Since I never saw a snake, I thought it was a spider bite.”
But the wound obviously came from a snake bite, probably a copperhead, said Dr. Justin Arnold, who was on duty when Davis went to the UAB Highlands Hospital emergency department. Arnold is one of the few toxicologists in Alabama and director of the Regional Poison Control Center at Children’s of Alabama.
“I could see the puncture wounds on her hand,” Arnold said. “Her arm was quite swollen, but she did not have any secondary issues, such as blood clotting, or systemic issues such as low blood pressure, rapid heart rate or difficulty breathing. That is consistent with copperhead bites, as their venom usually doesn’t produce those effects. Clotting and systemic effects are more common following bites from other vipers such as rattlesnakes or water moccasins.”
Health officials in Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas have reported more snake bites than usual so far this year, possibly because of the warm winter experienced in the South, according to the Associated Press.
In the event you or someone you know is bitten by a snake, Arnold offers these tips:
• Car keys or a cellphone are the most important first aid tools. Call 911 or go to a hospital emergency department immediately.
• Do not try to capture the snake; it could bite again. And do not take the snake with you. Physicians do not need to see it, and taking a venomous – and angry – snake into an emergency department is a bad idea. However, take a photo if you can do so safely.
• Do not apply a tourniquet or use a venom extractor kit. Do not apply ice.
• Stay calm. On average, there are fewer than 10 fatal snakebites per year in the United States.
Arnold said patients often are surprised when they are not given antivenin. The first thing medical professionals will do is monitor your vital signs and observe the swelling around the bite.
“Most snakes are not venomous, and even those that are sometimes give dry bites, with no venom,” Arnold said. “We’ll watch a patient’s reaction and see if antivenin is warranted. In some cases, it’s not, even for venomous bites.”
That was the case for Davis.
“Antivenin stops swelling, but it doesn’t reduce swelling,” Arnold said. “It can also reverse clotting issues and help with systemic effects such as rapid heart rate or nausea. Mrs. Davis didn’t have any symptoms other than swelling and pain, and those had already stabilized, so antivenin would not have helped.”
Ken Marion, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the UAB department of biology, said the best defense against snakebites is to be aware and alert.
“Many snakes, copperheads in particular, have excellent camouflage and are usually good at hiding,” Marion said. “Take a good look at your surroundings when outside. Watch where you step or place your hands.”
Marion said copperheads often are found in urban or suburban areas.
“Copperheads can make a home in small patches of woods or creeks even in developed areas,” he said. “Bigger, more showy snakes such as rattlesnakes have usually been eliminated in built-up areas, but copperheads are here.”
To reduce the likelihood a snake will make itself at home in your backyard, remove brush piles, stacks of firewood or construction debris that could be used as a snake’s den.
Marion also recommended wearing long pants and boots when in the woods, but he said commercial snake repellents do not do much good.
“Your best bet is to understand that you may be sharing your yard with a snake, and be vigilant,” he said. “Copperheads are not usually aggressive but will strike if you step on them or make contact with them.”
Davis is on the mend, but the swelling and numbness will last about a month.
“It feels like a Novocain shot where I was bit – still slightly numb, but I can use my left hand more now,” she said. “It is still bruised and very sensitive to touch.”
Davis is more careful when outdoors now. She said this is not something she wants to go through again.
“I’m ready for this incident to be over,” Davis said.