By Dave Ellison

With spring here and summer fast approaching, East Texans should take particular care to avoid becoming one of the estimated 500 to 700+ victims of venomous snakebites annually in the Lone Star State.

Thanks largely to improved methods of treatment and fast access to antivenin, deaths from snakebites are fairly rare – only about one fatality per 500 bites, according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Nevertheless, the pain from such a peril is often excruciating, recuperation can be lengthy and amputation of the affected location is sometimes the only logical medical option.

Moreover, the bite to a pocketbook can be catastrophic. Depending on the type of snake, the amount of venom injected and how many vials of antivenin are required for treatment, medical costs can exceed $250,000. In the United States, hospital pricing for antivenin is shockingly inconsistent, ranging from about $2,500 to a staggering $21,000 per vial. Several weeks ago, a small girl in south Texas was bitten by a rattlesnake and saving her life required 42 vials of antivenin. Many victims need at least four vials of the drug.

Copperheads account for the most snakebites in East Texas. Fortunately, the venom of these slithering reptiles is less toxic than that of the other pit vipers in the state, rattlesnakes and water moccasins. Copperheads also have a tendency to dry-bite – inject little or no venom – when striking a non-prey intruder.

Rattlesnakes account for the most serious snakebites.

Rattlesnake bites are the most likely to cause death or serious medical complications. Whatever the species, pit viper venom immediately begins destroying tissue, causing severe swelling and sometimes significant damage to flesh, nerves and heart.

Snakes generally are reclusive, preferring to avoid human contact. Bites are usually the result of the snake being surprised, cornered or handled. Statistically, a large number of bites are suffered by Caucasian men between the ages of 17 and 27, who likely would fail a sobriety test. Children are particularly vulnerable to being bitten by a snake because of their usually carefree behavior and the considerable amount of time they spend outdoors during the summer months of June, July and August when the reptiles are most active.

East Texans can greatly lessen their chances of snakebite by following a few common-sense precautions.

“The best rule of thumb is to watch where you put your hands and feet,” advises Texas herpetologist Bradley Lawrence “Don’t put them in places without looking, and don’t put them in places where you can’t see. Before lifting a stone or log or anything under which a venomous snake might be, first move the object with a stick or hook.”

Around a home, keep wood piles, brush piles, trash dumps and livestock pens as far as possible from the residence. Snakes also often seek shelter in gardens and around tools and materials stored on barn or shed floors. Other possible refuges include overturned boats and under tarps. When going outside at night, avoid wearing flip-flops and thoroughly inspect surroundings with a strong flashlight.

Being able to identify venomous and non-venomous snakes ensures safety and can be instrumental in providing accurate information to first responders or hospital personnel. Photos and descriptions of Texas snakes are plentiful on the Internet, and a visit to Tyler’s Caldwell Zoo will offer a close-up look at a variety of snakes. Parents and teachers should make certain that children are well-schooled in snake identification and that they understand NEVER to harass or attempt to handle snakes they might encounter.

According to a University of Florida study, about 85 percent of snake strikes occur below the knee. So especially when travelling in areas with high grass, rocky locales or an abundance of downed timber, wearing thick boots is a smart option. Adding snakeproof leggings or chaps, available at sporting goods and farm equipment retailers, further reduces risk. The Army and Navy stores in Tyler and Longview carry SnakeGuardz, one of the top- rated leggings. Made in Tulsa, the leggings, also offered in youth size, come with $1 million liability protection against fang penetration.

If a venomous snake is encountered, experts recommend allowing the reptile to retreat or for the observer to back slowly and carefully away. In some cases, killing a snake can be costly. In Texas, timber rattlesnakes are a protected species and intentionally destroying one can result in a fine of $500 plus a restitution fee of several hundred dollars.

If bitten by a venomous snake, a victim should immediately seek medical attention. Although jewelry and clothing around the affected area should be removed, no other in-the-field action is recommended, including application of a tourniquet, cut-and-suction, use of a cold compress or drinking alcohol. Calling 911 can often bring paramedics quickly to the scene, ensuring the appropriate action and transport.

Like them, fear them or hate them, snakes are environmentally essential. They help prevent serious overpopulations of insects and rodents, thereby safeguarding farm crops and reducing potential outbreaks of serious diseases. Moreover, snake venom contains certain harmless toxins instrumental in treating such life-threatening conditions as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and high blood pressure.

Anyone who wants to avoid venomous snakes entirely can move to Alaska or Maine, where the last such creature was seen in 1901. Also, East Texans can be thankful that the region is not home to the inland taipan, a resident of Australia. Known, too, as the fierce snake, just a single drop of its venom is powerful enough to kill more than 100 humans.