Snakebites are on the rise after a warm winter

A copperhead photographed in coastal South Carolina.
A copperhead photographed in coastal South Carolina. jblackmon@thesunnews.com

The mild winter has apparently contributed to a near quadrupling of reported snake bites so far this year, Charlotte’s Carolinas Poison Center says.

The center got 71 calls about bites in April, compared to 19 calls for the same month last year. The Charlotte center is one of 55 in the U.S.

Most of North Carolina’s 37 snake species are harmless. One of the six venomous species, copperheads, account for the vast majority of reported bites. The poison center gets 10 times more calls about copperheads than all other snake species combined.

“Venom is poison, and we handle all kinds of poison exposures – including exposures to venom,” Dr. Michael Beuhler, the center’s medical director, said in a statement. “We help treat around 500 snake bites statewide every year.”

Snakes in the Carolinas typically spend the winter underground, such as in stump holes or mammal burrows, and stay in or near those places from mid-October to mid-March, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences says.

Average Charlotte temperatures in March were nearly 2 degrees higher than normal, after a very warm January and February, and 6 degrees warmer than usual in April.

Most calls to the Carolinas Poison Center are from medical professionals seeking treatment recommendations, which vary with the species of snake involved, the amount of venom injected and the health of the person bitten.

But the center can also help individuals decide whether hospital care is needed, and says many can be treated at home under the center’s guidance. If you’re bitten by a snake, call the center at 800-222-1222.

How to avoid being bitten:

▪ Remove debris and junk from lawns and mow the grass often to reduce the presence of rodents that some snakes prey on.

▪ Check boots and shoes that are stored in a garage or outdoors before putting them on.

▪ Wear sturdy boots or shoes when outside, especially when gardening or hiking.

▪ Watch your step when outside and watch where your hands go, with the help of flashlight in the dark.

▪ Back away slowly if you see a snake. Don’t try to pick it up or move it. Snakes can bite when they feel threatened.

If you’re bitten, do not:

▪ Cut the bitten area and suck the venom out. This can cause infection.

▪ Ice the area, which causes additional tissue damage.

▪ Apply a tourniquet or tight bandage. It’s better for the venom to flow through the body.

▪ Attempt to catch or kill the snake to avoid getting bitten again.

A copperhead snake in a tree at a Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Denver, N.C., bit a customer on Monday, authorities said.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender