South Carolina

Bad year for snake bites in SC? What you need to know before peak snake season

South Carolina looks like it will record its third year in a row of unusually high numbers of snake bites.

So far in 2018, the Palmetto Poison Center in Columbia has fielded 73 calls reporting snake bites across the state, according to Jill Michels, managing director.

She said that's comparable to numbers from this time in 2016 and 2017, both years when the center received about 200 snake bite calls. Typically, the center would expect about 150 to 160 calls.

"We're on track to have another 200," Michels said about 2018.

Coastal Carolina Hospital has treated seven snake bite cases and Hilton Head Hospital has treated eight so far this year, according to the hospitals' spokesperson, Daisy Burroughs.

She said the hospitals together treated 39 patients for snake bites in 2017 — 14 at Coastal Carolina and 25 at Hilton Head Hospital.

Numbers from Beaufort Memorial Hospital were not immediately available.

Meanwhile, the worst of snake bite season is looming.

"We start getting calls in March of every year, basically March through November," Michels said. "Usually July and August are the worst."

What should you do if you are bitten?

Michels said the Palmetto Poison Center recommends that people go to a hospital right away if they are experiencing symptoms related to a snake bite or are unable to identify the snake that bit them.

Dr. Robert Clodfelter, medical director of the emergency department at Hilton Head Hospital, said copperhead bites account for the vast majority of bites treated on the island.

If you're bitten, there's no need to use a tourniquet or try to suck out the venom. Just seek medical attention "in an urgent fashion," Clodfelter said.

He said there's also no need to try to catch the snake or kill it.

"If you suspect or know you've been bitten by a venomous snake, you should seek medical attention," Clodfelter said. "We'll know if they've been envenomated. We know the effects of snake bites."

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How much does a bite hurt?

The Edisto Island Serpentarium is home to hundreds of snakes. At least once a week, handlers show the public how venom — used to make anti-venom — is extracted from snakes and their needle-like fangs.

Though it depends on the type of snake, if a person gets "a good dose of venom," there can be a lot pain, said serpentarium owner Ted Clamp.

"Not every time, but sometimes, you can feel it in your face within a minute or two," he said, describing a tingling sensation.

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Clodfelter said typical symptoms from a copperhead bite would be swelling, bruising and pain at the site of the puncture wound.

"Symptoms will start within minutes," he said.

But not all snake bites are the same, the doctor explained.

Some — like bites from rattlesnakes or water moccasins — will be more severe than a bite from a copperhead, and those bitten will experience different symptoms.

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What is the treatment?

The treatment for a snake bite is the anti-venom CroFab, Clodfelter said.

He said the number of vials of anti-venom administered differs based on the severity of the bite, but starts with six vials upon arrival at the hospital.

Each vial can cost thousands of dollars, which varies based on hospital costs and insurance plans.

"It's expensive, but it can be limb-saving," Clodfelter said.

In one case, a San Diego man's medical bill after a rattlesnake bite was $153,000, CBS reported in 2015.

NBC4 television station in Washington reported a woman bitten by a copperhead received a $55,000 hospital bill in 2013.

What can you do to avoid bites?

Copperheads, the most common type of snake in the Lowcountry, are nocturnal and go out looking for food at night, Clamp said.

He recommended not walking around at night in flip-flops and not trying to catch a snake.

Clodfelter said the environment on Hilton Head, with wooded areas and the leaf-covered ground, means people could encounter a snake anytime, day or night.

"Be mindful," Clodfelter said. "Be aware that you are walking into their environment."

He said golfers who go into the woods to find an errant golf ball should take a club and brush it from side to side before reaching down.

Gardeners should sweep across an area with a rake or tap around the area with a garden tool before bending down.

"Avoiding the bite is everything," Clodfelter said.