Canebreak rattlesnake

The canebreak rattlesnake is one of five venomous snakes you may encounter in the Lowcountry.

Let me say right off of the bat that there are not snakes hiding behind every bush and limb waiting for the unsuspecting to come their way.

We’ve talked many times in this column about the types of snakes and their habits. Suffice it to say there are four types of poisonous snakes in our area: the rattlesnake (canebreak, timber and diamondback), the cottonmouth, the copperhead and the coral snake.

It should be pointed out that there are MANY types of nonpoisonous snakes in our area too, and they will bite as well in defense of themselves.

This sometimes causes confusion to the now bitten in that many people think every snake is either poisonous or a rattlesnake. Let’s talk about being bitten. It’s rare. Only about 7,000 to 20,000 people are bitten each year in the United States depending on the year or source you site.

Most bites are nonpoisonous. Of the poisonous bites, very few are full blown bites with enough venom to cause death. I believe I read somewhere that about 6 percent of bites are fatal. Most of these become so because the victim is so far from help and is left to exposure or the bite is mismanaged.

Let’s concentrate today on preventing a bite and then what to do if you are bitten by a snake.

If you go afield during summer without snake leggings or boots, then you might also want to try cutting yourself and swimming with sharks. Anyone having spent time outdoors in South Carolina knows that it just makes sense to spend $89 to $200 for this little bit of insurance.

Even though the boots offer some protection, it is still best to watch where you step. As the knee flexes down, the top of the boot is within strike range of any snake in an elevated position, say on a log, stump or vine.

Don’t put your hands where you cannot see. Most copperhead bites are in log piles and a bite to the hand is usually worse than a bite to a lower limb. Try to peak into ground blinds and stands before crawling in on all fours. Snakes can and do climb well off of the ground. In this day and age, cell towers are everywhere. Take a cellphone with you while deep in the woods.

Okay, what if you are the unluckiest person in the world and you win the lottery and get bitten? Call 911 or a friend and tell them where you are and what your plans are if you are going to drive or walk out. Then:


1. Remain calm and move away from the snake. The second bite would mean he really means business.

2. Remove jewelry and tight clothing before you start swelling. This may be necessary in areas not near the bite as well.

3. Try to position the bitten area below the level of your heart.

4. Clean the wound. Do not flush with water, use a dry cloth.

5. If you have to walk out, try to fashion a splint to immobilize the area to reduce flexing and pumping venom toward the heart and thus through your body.


1. Use a tourniquet or apply ice.

2. Cut the wound.

3. Drink caffeine or alcohol. They will increase venom absorption.

4. Don’t try to catch the snake. One bite is better than two.

There are plenty of other reasons to be careful when going afield. Heat, poisonous insects, plants and pests top my list. As a kid I ran around in the swamps half naked playing Tarzan. I crawled around on my hands and knees in soybean fields looking for downed doves.

As an adolescent. I scouted cotton for the Clemson Extension Service. I have spent all of my life in the woods and have never been bitten, though I have had a boot bitten twice.

My brother was bitten by a rattlesnake in his back yard, so you never know. If you are bitten, don’t tell the folks it was a poisonous snake if you are not sure of it and what kind it was. The wrong anti-venom is as dangerous as the snake bite.

Most bites are defensive and not predatory bites, so little or no poison is injected. You may just have to wait it out at the hospital to see if you have any symptoms such as:

1. Severe pain.

2. Swelling and bruising up the length of the limb.

3. Nausea and vomiting.

4. Odd taste in your mouth.

5. Tingling or difficulty speaking.

6. General weakness.

Make the call as soon as the event happens. In my brother's case, he was fine one minute and the next his tongue was so swollen they had to rush to put him to sleep for an intubation.

Among all things experts say, the most useful tool is to be calm. Panicking only increases your chances of a poor outcome.

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Dr. John Rheney has been writing his outdoors column for The Times and Democrat since 1984.


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