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Snakebite

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Medical Treatment

The doctor treats life-threatening conditions first. A victim with difficulty breathing may need a tube placed in his or her throat and a ventilator machine used to help with breathing. People who are in shock require intravenous fluids and possibly other medicines to maintain blood flow to vital organs.

 

  • The doctor gives antivenom to victims with significant symptoms. This therapy can be life saving or limb saving. Antivenom can occasionally also cause allergic reactions, however, or even anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening type of shock requiring immediate medical treatment with epinephrine and other medications.

  • Antivenom can also cause serum sickness within 5-10 days of therapy. Serum sickness causes fevers, joint aches, itching, swollen lymph nodes, and fatigue, but it is not life threatening.

  • Even victims without significant symptoms need to be monitored for several hours, and some people need to be admitted to the hospital for overnight observation.

  • The doctor cleans the wound and looks for broken fangs or dirt. A tetanus shot is required if the victim has not had one within 5 years. Some wounds may require antibiotics to prevent infection.

  • Rarely, the doctor may need to consult a surgeon if there is evidence of compartment syndrome. If treatment with limb elevation and medicines fails, the surgeon may need to cut through the skin into the affected compartment, a procedure called a fasciotomy. This procedure can relieve the increased limb swelling and pressure, potentially saving the arm or leg.

Next Steps -- Follow-up

A snakebite victim who has been released from the hospital should return to medical care immediately if he or she develops any worsening symptoms, especially trouble breathing, change in mental status, evidence of bleeding, worsening pain, or worsening swelling.

Someone who has received antivenom treatment for snakebite should return to medical care if any signs of serum sickness develop (fever, muscle or joint aches or swelling, hives). This complication usually occurs within 5-10 days after administration of antivenom.

A snakebite victim (particularly a rattlesnake bite) should, for the first few weeks, warn his or her physician of this fact before any routine or emergency surgery. Some snake venoms can cause difficulty in blood clotting for a week or more after the bite.

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