Keep It Simple | 3 things to know if you get bit by a rattlesnake

Wikimedia / Trisha M. Shears

Many hikers have heard it before … the eerie sound of a distant rattle. Your heart starts to beat rapidly, your eyes shift back and forth in their sockets, searching for the camouflaged beast in the dry, sandpaper bushes. 

You want to proceed forward, knowing if you can get past, you are that much closer to being finished. But at the same time, you also contemplate, what if it’s getting closer? What if that slimy reptile is slithering toward me, forked tongue tasting around for it’s prey…

Before you know it, you are at the bottom of the trail, hyperventilating and thinking that was too close.

Fact of the matter is, it is pretty rare to get bit by a rattlesnake. Retired ER doc Mark Shipman has in fact only seen about 20-25 rattlesnake bites during his 30 years of being an ER doctor here in the valley. 

Still, the question remains: What if you do come across a rattlesnake and end up getting bit? What then? For myself, I wasn’t able to answer that question, which is what led me to talking with Dr. Shipman about rattlesnakes and what to do if you do end up getting bit.

1. First of all, avoid the snake

If you come across a rattler on the trail or hear one nearby, do not try to find and catch it. It is uncommon to get bit by a snake, says Shipman, unless you are trying to handle the snake on purpose. “The rattlesnake we have (in the Pacific Northwest) is very timid,” says Shipman. “A rattlesnake going after somebody, it was probably mistakenly getting away from something else,” states Shipman. “They are very timid and will want to get away from you.” So overall, to avoid a snakebite, don’t antagonize the snake in the first place. 

2. If you get bit, is the bite venomous or non-venomous?

“About a third of rattlesnake bites are non-venomous.” All rattlesnakes are venomous, but after their first kill, rattlesnakes can control how much venom is released, says Shipman. So how do you know if the bite is infected with venom? You won’t know if you're envenomated for a few minutes, says Shipman. “But if it hurts like hell,” says Shipman, “there is probably venom.” “If you get a bite and it doesn’t hurt all that bad, and within 30 minutes to an hour, it’s not all swollen and painful, then you should treat it as a non-venomous bite.”

3. Next, be careful and don’t panic

If you get a snakebite, you will want to get to an emergency department fairly rapidly if you can, says Shipman. “It is not recommended that you necessarily exercise to get there,” states Shipman. “The idea is that, if you are exercising and there is all that more blood flow then the venom gets distributed.” So if you do get bit, continue slowly and efficiently to the nearest hospital. “Go promptly to an emergency department, but be careful getting there,” says Shipman. Also, keep the bite below the heart and be careful to not get your blood pumping.

Dr. Mark Shipman is now retired and lives in the valley with his wife, Rosie.