The Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy offers public health services and trains students and health care professionals. Call the free, 24-hour hotline at 1-800-222-1222 for more information.
Arizona is in the midst of another active rattlesnake season. With 13 different types of rattlesnakes slithering throughout the state, it's important for every desert dweller to know what to do when crossing paths with a snake.
From early April through the end of October, rattlesnakes often can be found anywhere from hiking trails to city streets. While snakes often aren't looking to cause trouble, people must exercise extreme caution when they come across a rattlesnake.
Keith Boesen, director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center and a professor with the UA College of Pharmacy, said the center typically receives a report of someone being bitten every other day during rattlesnake season, with those numbers approaching a bite per day in the peak stretch from mid-August to mid-September.
"Snakes are a lot like us in that they like to be out and about when it's cooler, either early in the morning or in the evening," Boesen said. "When the monsoons hit and the summer heat start to break, that's when rattlesnakes really start to come out. So it's that increased convergence of snake and human activity that leads to more interaction, which leads to more bites."
A snakebite packs enough venom to cause serious injury or even death. Most snakebite victims have to spend at least two to three days in a hospital and spend weeks, sometimes months, rehabilitating the area around the bite in order to regain full range of motion and muscle functionality.
"Some victims can't even do basic things like use a pen or hold their morning cup of coffee months after the incident," Boesen said.
A bite can deliver three separate types of injuries that must be treated. First, there is the pain and swelling at the site of the bite. Second, bleeding complications can occur. Lastly, the snake's venom can cause muscular and neurological disruptions.
"No two snakebites are exactly the same and no two people react the same ways to a snakebite, so the best treatment plan is always developed on a case-by-case basis," Boesen said.
The best treatment for a snakebite is to avoid rattlesnakes entirely. Don't engage, if at all possible. Don't try to shoo it away with a stick. Don't get near it. If an individual encounters a rattlesnake, Boesen suggests taking one big step back to get out of striking range, and then to continue calmly walking without agitating the snake.
"Snakes don't have any interest in attacking us," Boesen said. "They're primarily defending themselves. As long as they don't feel threatened, they typically won't strike."
Boesen added that the majority of those who suffer snakebites are those doing typical, everyday tasks, such as pulling weeds, gardening, taking out the trash or checking the mail. Hikers often have full attention on the path and can spot snakes before encroaching on their territory. These city strikes happen because it's often the last thing on the individual's mind.
"Many bites take place simply because the person was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Boesen said.
If a bite does take place, the best thing an individual can do is to get to a hospital as soon as possible. The victim should remove restrictive clothing or jewelry and receive professional medical attention.
"Anything you have seen in a movie or read in a book — such as sucking the venom from the wound or tying a tourniquet above the bite mark — is completely useless," Boesen said.
UA researchers Leslie Boyer and Vance G. Nielsen are collaborating on a project that may extend the window of treatment for snakebite victims. Although their product must undergo lengthy lab and clinical trials, it is intended to act as a "bridge" that buys time for a person who faces the potentially life-threatening effects of a snakebite, which may occur far from medical care.
If a person encounters a rattlesnake on a hike, he or she should contact the nearest park ranger. The Arizona Game and Fish Department is another resource for rattlesnake information.
The Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center works to inform and educate residents and visitors on ways to safely share the desert landscape with snakes, scorpions and other poisonous animals. Two years ago, the center collaborated with the UA College of Pharmacy on a rattlesnake Twitter event called #RattlerChat to educate social media users on the best ways to stay safe around snakes. Last year, the event went to Periscope to add a visual component to the conversation.
"The best things people can do to avoid being bitten is to be prepared, be vigilant and, most of all, be aware of surroundings," Boesen said.
For more information or to speak to a snakebite expert, call the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center's free, 24-hour hotline at 1-800-222-1222.