Don't Touch That Snake!
By Primary Children's Hospital
Jun 18, 2018
Updated Oct 25, 2023
5 min read
It might be fun for kids to try and catch tiny snakes while camping, hiking or playing outside, but the wrong catch can ruin an outing in a hurry - and land your little one in a Life Flight helicopter and the ICU.
Every year, Primary Children's Hospital treats kids from Utah and surrounding states suffering from snake bites - most commonly from rattlesnakes, but also from others in the crotaline family, including copperheads and cottonmouths. In the case of rattlesnakes, the bites often come from young snakes that haven't yet developed rattles but contain a venomous - and possibly deadly - bite all the same.
Snake bites are fairly common, but incredibly dangerous. The Utah Poison Control Center receives reports of an average of over 20 venomous bites from snakes in the crotaline family per year, and cautions that bite numbers are actually underreported. The Primary Children's Emergency Department treats about 10 venomous snakebites per year, and in some years, far more than that. The bites often occur in the foothills of the Wasatch Front or in desert regions, on hiking trails or even in neighborhoods. Frequently, kids are injured when they try to catch a tiny snake or accidentally step on one.
Spotting rattlesnakes can be tricky, especially baby ones. Baby rattlesnakes are small, measuring about 6 - 12 inches long, and can look a lot like a harmless gopher or bull snake. They don't have a rattle on the end of their tails until they've grown enough to shed a skin, making them harder to identify, especially for a child.
Bitten skin looks blue and black at the site of the venom, with massive swelling. Venom damages the tissues and if left untreated, can be lethal as the venom travels throughout the body and causes life-threatening complications.
The only effective treatment of rattlesnake bites is antivenom. Primary Children's uses antivenom that requires several doses from a vial at first, and then often requires additional doses - sometimes up to a dozen or more - in 6-hour intervals. The antivenom uses the body's immune system to attack the venom and the effects are almost immediate. Swelling at the site and surrounding tissues attacked by the venom decrease quickly. This prevents the venom from entering and damaging critical organs, which can lead to chronic health issues or even death.
The antivenom is administered through an IV and takes about an hour to complete each dose. Because of the danger and level of treatment required, children who are bitten are often admitted to the ICU.