In the summer heat, finding copperheads and other pit vipers slithering across the area is a common sight, but what happens when they bite? One Newton County resident recently found out.
Carol Veliotis, of Covington, said she was walking a suitcase out to her car one July morning, when she thought she stepped on a briar. Veliotis was wearing pajamas and flip-flops. What she thought was a stick had cut her heel.
“I said, ‘Ouch! That hurt!,’” she recalled to The Covington News. “‘When I walk back to the house, I’ll toss that stick into the woods.’”
But it was not a stick. As she returned to the house, Veliotis found the gray, copperhead snake — about 14-inches long, she said — coiled in her driveway with its arrow-shaped head staring directly at her.
“At that moment, it all came together in my mind,” she said. “‘OMG! I was just bitten by a copperhead — am I going to die? Get sick? Lose my foot? Go to the hospital?’”
Veliotis was then rushed to the emergency room. That was when she “lost it.”
“I was 72, no thyroid, a compromised immune system, scared — one of the worst moments of my life,” she said.
Veliotis stayed in the hospital all day where she took IV fluids, blood tests and a tetanus shot. She said her doctor declared the wound a “dry bite” as not much venom had been injected. Veliotis attributed that to her friend squeezing venom out of the wound prior to going to the hospital and the fact that “only one fang got me.”
Despite Veliotis’ actions, Dr. Tameka Walker-Blake, medical director for Piedmont Newton’s Emergency Department, said no one should squeeze the bite wound or try to suck out the venom.
If someone is bitten while alone, Walker-Blake suggested calling 911 immediately and practicing “basic wound care.” Do not apply a tourniquet to the wound; do not cut the wound; do not apply heat or ice to the wound. Do not eat or drink anything. Some medications, like aspirin, can worsen the effects of venom, according to the Georgia Poison Center (GPC).
“Basic wound care should be adequate,” she said. “Venom extraction could be harmful by worsening tissue damage.”
According to the GPC, only six of the 46 species of snakes found in Georgia are venomous: copperhead, pigmy rattlesnake, canebrake or timber rattlesnake, cottonmouth, Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and Eastern coral snake.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 7,000–8,000 people in the U.S. per year receive venomous bites, and about five of those people die.
The number of deaths would be much higher if people did not seek medical care, the CDC states. Disability and permanent injury are such more likely.
“Although most copperhead bites rarely lead to death, venomous snakebites that are not treated can lead to permanent disability as a result of severe tissue damage,” Walker-Blake said.
Walker-Blake said the emergency room was the best place to go for snake bite treatment, not a family physician.
“The emergency room is best equipped to handle snakebites since some patients may be unstable and require stabilizing treatment such as oxygen and intravenous fluids,” Walker-Blake said. “Additionally, if the patient does require antivenom it is better for patient stability to be given sooner. According to evidence-based data, treatment with antivenom was most beneficial within five hours of envenomation.”
When bitten, Walker-Blake recommended removing anything that could affect blood circulation if swelling occurs.
“If any jewelry or clothing constricting the site can be removed that would be helpful to prevent any potential tissue damage as well,” she said.
The GPC says people bitten by a snake should never try to catch it. Doing increases the heart rate and puts the victim and others at risk for being bitten again.
When hiking or camping, wear proper boots and long pants for protection and avoid tall grass and piles of leaves when possible. Snakes are also prone to hide in rocks or piles of wood.