South Carolina

Watch your step! 4 things to know if you encounter a venomous snake in South Carolina

Warming weather means the start of a season many in the Lowcountry dread: It's snake-bite season, and residents should be particularly on alert for copperheads, experts say.

A unusually high number of bites were recorded during the past two years through the Carolinas and Georgia.

Some snake experts cited mild winter weather for that increased snake activity.

Jill Michels, managing director of the Palmetto Poison Center in Columbia, said the center received about 200 calls about snake bites in each of the past two years. Typically, the center would expect about 150 to 160 calls.

This year, with cooler than usual temperatures, the center has recorded 18 calls so far, she said.

There's a long summer ahead, though.

"We get snake-bite calls from March through November," Michels said. "August can be our busiest month."

In 2017, Coastal Carolina Hospital and Hilton Head Hospital together treated 33 patients for snake bites, said the hospitals' spokesperson Katy Waronsky. The year before, that number was 35.

As of the end of April, the two hospitals had treated three snake bites, Waronsky said.

Beaufort Memorial Hospital did not have specific numbers available, but spokesperson Courtney McDermott said the ER staff recently had training in snake-bite treatment.

1. Copperheads are the main culprits. Here's what they look like.

There are 38 snake species that call the Lowcountry home, and the chance of encountering a venomous one is very unlikely, experts say.

In most instances, the snake is more afraid of the human than the other way around, according to Will Dillman, herpetologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

However, there are six venomous snakes crawling around the Lowcountry, and copperheads are the main culprits for bites on Hilton Head.

"Hilton Head is crawling with copperheads. I would say almost 100 percent of the venomous bites we see are copperheads," said Dr. Robert Clodfelter, medical director of the hospital's emergency room. "Copperheads love brush-type, wooded areas and warmer climate, so they're fairly common here."

2. Copperheads blend in, so be on the lookout.

Clodfelter said a majority of the patients he's treated did not see the snake before it struck.

"Most of the patients were either gardening or walking along some kind of path near brush when they were bitten," he said. "Copperheads are so well camouflaged."

Clodfelter said people need to be cautious when they are gardening or near any area with a lot of brush.

"Before you do any gardening, take a rake through the area and check for snakes," he said. "If you're walking near any brush, always be on the lookout, especially between dusk and daybreak. Copperheads are more active at night in the summertime."

Never put your hands, arms, feet or legs where you can’t see them when outdoors, researchers at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory recommend. Even reaching under the house for something blindly can cause you to disturb a hiding snake.

3. Seek medical attention immediately if you are bitten.

The good news is that copperheads are the least venomous of the venomous local snakes, though their bite still requires immediate medical attention.

"Copperhead bites are immediately painful, and symptoms begin soon after the bite," Clodfelter said. "Copperhead bites can get serious if you don’t treat them quickly."

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Kevin Kremer, director of emergency services at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, said sometimes snake bites are "dry" bites, meaning there's no venom injected.

He said it's best, in any case, to get to the nearest emergency room for any bite.

Do not lacerate the bite or try to extract the venom, he said, adding that ice also is not very effective in snake-bite cases.

4. Snake-bite symptoms can vary widely.

Depending on the snake and the bite, the symptoms could be immediate or could take minutes or hours to be felt, Kremer said.

Symptoms include swelling, pain, shock, tingling and numbness and even anaphylaxis.

If the person bitten is experiencing shortness of breath, swelling of their lips or tongue or pounding in their chest, they should call 911, Kremer recommended.

Here's what herpetologists at SREL recommend doing — and not doing — after a snake bite:

  • Do not eat or drink anything.

  • Stay calm and do not run or engage in strenuous activity.

  • Remove all jewelry or watches from affected area.

  • Take note of the snake’s size and pattern or take a photo, but do not try to capture or kill the snake.

  • Get to the nearest emergency room.