Snakes Alive!

February 1, 2011

Snakes from the Houston Zoo helped teach a life-saving lesson to a group of BCM emergency medicine faculty, residents, students and applicants to the program.

Eight snakes, venomous and non-venomous, were brought to BCM by Houston Zoo herpetologist Judith Bryja to accompany a lecture hosted by Dr. Liston Rice titled, "Venomous Snakebites in the United States." He discussed how to identify venomous snakes native to Texas, how anti-venom is used and how to react to a snake bite.

Rice is an assistant professor of medicine - emergency medicine at BCM.

Keep walking

His first lesson was: if you see a snake in the wild, just walk away.

"Just like spiders and scorpions, snakes get a bad rap," said Rice, who is also on staff at Ben Taub General Hospital. "While there are exceptions, the majority of bites take place when people are purposefully agitating snakes."

There are visible markings that identify a venomous snake, such as elliptical shaped eyes, notches near the nose and teeth placement.

Rice advises erring on the side of caution and simply staying away from snakes rather than getting up close and personal to try to identify them.

"There are four types of venomous snakes in Texas, and the mortality rate is less than 1 percent if you are bitten," he said. "However, damage does occur, and it could lead to loss of mobility to the area bitten."

If you or someone you know is bitten, stay calm, lie down in the back of a vehicle and have someone take you to a hospital, Rice said. He advises not to try to suck out the venom, cut the bite or cut off circulation to the affected area.

Anti-venom

During the lecture Rice also discussed the progression of anti-venom development over the years.

"There have not been any definitive studies that say just how effective anti-venom is against certain side effects of snake bites," he said. "We do know it can stabilize initial symptoms and stop some of the progress of damage after a bite."

Under the watchful eye of Bryja, lecture attendants had a chance to hold a non-venomous snake. Bryja described each of the eight snakes and repeated Rice's advice, "If you see a snake in the wild, leave it alone. Most likely it is not venomous, but it is better not to find out."