Be rattlesnake aware this summer

Hikers, bikers should be aware, alert and always ready to react
June 2, 2016

Timothy Hutchison knows rattlesnakes well. He trained at University of Arizona and studied toxicology at the poison control center there. For the past 25 years, though, he has lived and played in northern Colorado, where the prairie rattlesnake can be found in many natural areas.

Hutchison works in the emergency departments at Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland and Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins and is a partner with Emergency Physicians of the Rockies. He also is the medical director of Air Link, UCHealth’s emergency medical transport helicopter service that serves residents within a 200-mile radius of Loveland, including many injured hikers and bikers in the northern mountains.

As an avid outdoorsman, he sees the venomous species as beautiful creatures that should be left alone.

Here are four things you need to know:

Be aware

The more you know about prairie rattlers before you head out on a trail or wander through the wilderness, the better.

Sometimes they can be very hard to see because they can really blend in with sage brush and other kinds of cover.

Here are some ways to identify a prairie rattler:

  • Light sage green gray to brown with a row of dark blotches on their backs.
  • Large rattle on the tip of the tail.
  • Up to four feet long.
  • Wide, diamond-shaped or shovel shaped head and a narrow neck.
  • Fangs.
  • Heat-sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils.
  • Vertical and elliptical pupils.

Bull snakes, which are also found in northern Colorado, look similar to the prairie rattlesnake, but they are usually a lot bigger, Hutchison warned. They can be found around water (irrigation fields and canals) and are very aggressive. They don’t have fangs, but they do bite. Fortunately, they are not poisonous.

Be on the lookout and listen

As you venture out, always keep eyes out for rattlesnakes, Hutchison said.

Especially active from early spring through mid-fall, the prairie rattler prefers rocky areas, mammal burrows, rock crevices, caves, dirt or paved trails and grasses alongside trails. Don’t put your hand under a rock or log or into a crevice unless you can clearly see where you are putting your hand, Hutchison said.

Also, hikers and bikers should leave their earphones at home. Rattlesnakes rattle to let you know that they are there, but the warning signal won’t help you if your favorite tunes are blaring into your ears.

Be prepared

Before you venture out, be prepared. Stay on the trails. Wear sturdy footwear, like boots, and long, loose pants to protect yourself.

Go out prepared with a plan in case you do cross paths with a prairie rattler. Hutchison suggests that you back away and leave it alone. Wait for the snake to move out of your path, then you can move on, he said.

Also, don’t mess with a rattlesnake if you do see one.

Be ready to react

While a rattlesnake bite has the potential to be fatal, most people who get medical care quickly can recover completely.

The classic rattlesnake bites have puncture wounds that tend to ooze some blood from them, Hutchison said. The bites can produce severe pain, swelling and bruising. The person who was bitten also may feel nauseated and have difficulty breathing or disturbed vision. Severe cases can include shock, low blood pressure and internal bleeding.

If you or someone you are with is bitten:

  • DO stay calm.
  • DO call 911 immediately and get to the closest emergency room.
  • DO keep the bite area below heart level.
  • DO remove or loosen any tight clothing or jewelry around the affected area.
  • DO NOT use a tourniquet or ice.
  • DO NOT cut the skin and try to suck out the venom. That doesn’t work.
  • DO NOT try to catch the snake. The hospital does not need to see it, and you could get hurt in the process. It’s best not to handle the snake at all, even if you think it is dead, because there have been case reports of dead snakes reflexively biting.

For more than a decade, emergency physicians have had a type of antivenin that Hutchison refers to as a “miracle drug” on their side. Called CroFab, the newer type delays a lot of the effects of the snake’s venom and is safer to use than the previous antivenin.

The sooner the patient can get medical care and the antivenin, the better.

“With proper treatment, most people can have a full recovery,” Hutchison said. “It all comes down to the effects of the venom.”

About the author

Kelly Tracer is a media relations specialist at UCHealth, based in northern Colorado. For nearly 20 years, she worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and designer before diving into the world of health care communications.

She believes there is an amazing story inside everyone and considers it an honor to get to meet and work with so many extraordinary people – patients, families, providers, volunteers and staff – every day. She is also fascinated by health care innovation and programs that empower and inspire people and families to live healthier lives.

A native of Nebraska, Kelly received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. She and her husband have two children and enjoy paddle boarding all summer and skiing all winter.