It was a dark night for a walk. The dog changed direction. He turned his flashlight.
It isn’t a Halloween tale, but it sure put a fright into David Smith. Not to mention the pain.
Smith recently suffered a copperhead bite while walking his dog in his River Hills neighborhood. The snake bit his toe after he stepped on it.
“I was walking my dog at night,” he said. “It was dark. She kind of pulled off. I shined the light over where she was going. I guess I should have stopped walking.”
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A week later Smith still isn’t back on his feet. Retired, he plays golf and tennis but doesn’t know when he will be back at it. His left leg still in pain.
“It’s a big blister on my foot,” Smith said. “It looks like a plumb.”
While injured and upset by the bite, Smith wasn’t surprised. Copperheads can be found at night in the area. He guesses roads near streetlights are common places because the lights draw the bugs, the bugs the frogs and the frogs, the snakes.
“We’ve probably seen 15 run over this year,” he said. “We saw one alive two nights in a row.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions, up to 8,000 venomous snake bites occur in the United States each year. About five people per year die from them. Snakes present a threat to outdoor workers, among others.
Copperheads are common to the eastern U.S., according to the agency. They often freeze when frightened and are most likely to bite when stepped on or near. They live in forests and near water sources. Along with cottonmouths (southeastern U.S., common to rivers and lakes) and coral snakes (southern U.S., wooded or marshy areas), copperheads take up residence easily in areas like Lake Wylie. There even is a Copperhead Island on the lake.
Jill Michels is managing director with Palmetto Poison Center in Columbia. The agency covers the entire state and operates out of the University of South Carolina. Michels said “snake bite season” typically runs March to November. This year, there have been 200 calls.
“Just about snake bites,” she said.
They make up a small percentage of poison-related incidents in the state –the center fields about 3,000 phone calls a year – but not all snake bites prompt calls. Most calls come from hospitals or physicians in areas where bites are rare. Otherwise medical facilities often handle them without reaching out to the poison center.
“People don’t have to report everything to us,” Michels said. “It’s all voluntary.”
According to the CDC and Palmetto Poison Center, someone suffering from a venomous snake bite should seek medical care immediately. Taking a picture of the snake or remembering the color pattern and shape of it can help with treatment. Victims should try to remain calm to slow the spread of venom, and lie or sit with the bite below heart level if unable to get to a hospital immediately. The bite can be washed with soap and water, and covered with a clean, dry dressing.
Victims shouldn’t bother the snake, apply a tourniquet, open the wound with a knife, suck out the venom, ice or immerse the wound in water or drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages.
“Don’t do what you’ve seen in the movies,” Michels said.
The center offers information on next steps, which vary a little by snake type.
“For copperhead bites, it usually involves a lot of swelling,” Michels said. “You want to monitor it, because sometimes it can be difficult to see how much swelling there is just comparing from one limb to the next.”
Smith described just such treatment. His leg was marked and measured constantly to determine if he needed anti-venom. It isn’t given automatically. Smith figured it must be “very expensive” medication, but in some cases bites simply don’t require it.
“Not everyone initially needs treatment,” Michels said. “There is what’s called a dry bite, where the snake does bite and it breaks the skin, but doesn’t release the venom. It can depend on how much venom is injected.”
However much venom went into Smith’s foot was plenty for him, thanks.
“That was the first, and hopefully only,” Smith said.
His advice to avoid a snake bite: “Try to walk during the daytime if you can. If you do walk at night take a good flashlight, and use it.”