Snakes, gators, and sharks (and spiders and mosquitoes and jellyfish, and bees and fire ants), oh my!

jholleman@thestate.comJune 19, 2014 

Aaah, summer – there’s so much to like about you – summer vacations, summer romances, “Summer time and the livin’ is easy.”

Oooh, summer – there’s so much about you that’s scary – mosquitoes, sharks, “I don’t like spiders and snakes.”

You can simply balance the good against the bad of summer, or you can take the upbeat approach. Serious problems with those scary creatures are statistically rare. And the likelihood of summer critter problems can be reduced with a little preparation and common sense.

So here are a few of the summer threats in South Carolina, and the reasons we shouldn’t let them keep us cowering in air-conditioned homes until late September.

Mosquitoes

You’ve probably heard that mosquitoes are the deadliest creatures on the planet. But while mosquito-borne malaria is a major killer worldwide, it’s extremely rare in the U.S. There were 1,925 cases of malaria in the U.S. in 2011, and almost all who contracted the disease had recently traveled overseas. South Carolina does have plenty of mosquitoes, however, and some carry the less deadly but still serious West Nile virus.

True danger: The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reported seven confirmed cases of West Nile virus in humans in the state in 2013, down from 41 cases in 2012. The state has had five West Nile-related deaths since 1999. West Nile causes noticeable symptoms in about 20 percent of people who are infected, and severe symptoms including encephalitis or meningitis in about 1 percent.

Tips: Use bug repellent, wear long sleeves and long pants when going to mosquito-prone areas, avoid going outside around dawn and dusk. Empty receptacles where water might collect in your yard, since mosquitoes leave their eggs in stagnant water.

Snakes

There are four types of venomous snakes in the U.S. – rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths/water moccasins and coral snakes. All four can be found in South Carolina.

True danger: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 7,000-8,000 people nationwide suffer bites by venomous snakes each year, but only about five die. Rapid medical care after bites usually saves lives. South Carolina hasn’t had a snake-bite death in years.

Tips: Leave them alone. The vast majority of bites occur when people try to handle snakes. Also, avoid tall grass and piles of leaves or wooded debris. Wear boots and long pants when in the forest, and use gloves if handling brush or debris.

Sharks

There are plenty of sharks among dozens of species cruising the state’s coastal waters. They generally ignore humans, which aren’t among their standard diet. Shark experts say most bites along the South Carolina coast involve sharks feeding on smaller marine creatures and accidentally hitting a swimmer’s foot or lower leg.

True danger: The International Shark Attack File, compiled through the Florida Museum of Natural History, lists 77 unprovoked shark attacks in South Carolina waters from 1837-2013. Six of those were in an unusually busy 2013. The only known S.C. shark attack fatality in the state was in 1852 off Morris Island.

Tips: If you must avoid all sharks, stay out of saltwater. If you love swimming in the ocean, it’s prudent to avoid swimming by yourself and around dusk and at night, when sharks are more likely to be feeding.

Alligators

Gator populations in South Carolina have been on the rise for decades, and the recent advent of a limited gator hunting season has barely impacted those numbers. Fixtures in coastal golf course ponds for years, they’ve recently begun wandering into neighborhood streets and shopping centers in the Lowcountry. While their range is mostly in the coastal plain, gators have become more common in the Columbia area in recent years.

True danger: State wildlife officials say there are no confirmed alligator attack deaths on record in South Carolina. Even in Florida, it’s been five years since the last known gator attack death. Gator bites caused serious foot injuries for a woman walking dogs near a pond in Hilton Head last August and a woman fishing at Hilton Head in May 2012. In the most infamous S.C. incident in recent years, a gator severed the arm of a Summerville man swimming in Lake Moultrie in 2007.

Tips: Don’t feed gators. When they are fed, they lose their natural reluctance to hang around people. If you see a gator, give it plenty of space. Avoid swimming in water with lots of vegetation, where gators like to live.

Spiders

Brown recluse and black widows are the venomous spiders common in South Carolina. The recluse, as its name indicates, hides out in dark areas such as holes, brush piles and even boots left on the porch. Black widows, identifiable by the red hourglass on their abdomen, also like to build webs in dark places such as under eaves of houses or in leaf piles.

True danger: Many thousands of people in the U.S. are bitten by these two species each year. Their toxin is strong, but fortunately they don’t pack the toxin in large volume. Among those thousands of bites, about 2,800 people each year are treated in health care facilities for spider bites, and only two deaths related to brown recluse or black widows were reported in the country from 2008-2012, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Tips: Wear gloves when clearing brush or wood piles. Shake out shoes and clothing that have been sitting on the ground before putting them on. Clear junk out of yards and away from the walls of houses. Use a broom to clean webs from around houses, swimming pools and outdoor equipment.

Fire ants

Fire ants sneaked into the U.S. from South America more than 50 years ago and are ubiquitous in South Carolina now. If you spend any time outside, you’re likely to get a fire ant stings.

True danger: While there are probably hundreds of thousands of fire ant stings nationwide each year, the national poison control group reported 130 ant-sting cases treated in health care facilities last year and only one deemed “serious.”

Tips: Go to the Clemson University’s website and search for “fire ants” for detailed information on how best to reduce populations in your yard. The best defense against stings is to watch where you put your feet, especially if you’re staying put for a while.

Jellyfish

There are several species of jellyfish in the waters off South Carolina. Most of those you see washed up on the beach are cannonball jellies, but those have weak venom and usually cause few problems for swimmers. The common species in local waters with more venomous tentacles include lion’s mane, moon jellies, sea nettles and sea wasps. Their venom can raise painful welts. Though not a true jellyfish, the Portuguese man-of-war can be found in South Carolina waters, and its sting is more serious.

True danger: The stings hurt enough that local officials in South Carolina occasionally shut down beaches when jellyfish are especially abundant near shore. The stings cause plenty of tears in young children but serious problems are rare. In 2012, the national poison control group reported 77 jellyfish stings were treated in health care facilities nationwide, and only one was deemed “serious.”

Tips: It’s impossible to completely avoid jellies if you’re swimming in the ocean. But if you hear of others being stung nearby, or if someone in your group is stung, that’s a sign there may be more around than normal. In that case, you might want to wait a few hours before returning to the surf. If you are stung, treat the injured area with vinegar or a solution of baking soda to deactivate the venom.

Bees, wasps, hornets

These biting insects are common in the state. While they out there year-round, they seem more of a problem in the summer when people are out in their environment more.

True danger: Bees, wasps and hornets land lots of painful stings, but they seldom rise to serious threats. In 2012, the national poison control group reported 712 cases that made it to health care facilities and 15 considered “serious.” But a small percentage of people are allergic to certain insect venoms, and any sting from this group of insects can be much more serious.

Tips: Don’t bother insect nests. If you find nests around your home, use specialized insecticides that spray from a distance to get rid of them. If a sting causes especially large welts, nausea, dizziness, cramps or difficulty breathing, see a physician immediately because you might be allergic to the venom. And if you are diagnosed as allergic, you should get a prescription epinephrine pen to carry when in the outdoors.

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