Most Colorado snakes are nonvenomous (nonpoisonous), harmless, and actually are beneficial to people. Nonvenomous and venomous species can be easily distinguished from each other. Of the twenty-five species of snakes in Colorado, the western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) and the massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus) are the only venomous species. The western rattlesnake appears in most habitats throughout the state. The massasauga, however, is limited to the southeastern grasslands.
There are six basic ways to distinguish these two venomous snakes from their nonvenomous relatives:
- Rattles at the end of the tail.
- Fangs in addition to their rows of teeth.
- Facial pits between the nostrils and eyes.
- Vertical and elliptical pupils that may look like thin lines in bright light (nonvenomous snakes have round pupils).
- A single row of scales between the vent and the tip of the tail (nonvenomous snakes have two scales).
- Broad triangular head and narrow neck.
The best safety measure against venomous snakes is to be prepared for a possible encounter with them, especially if hiking, running, or biking in their habitat. In areas that are inhabited by rattlesnakes wear long, loose pants and calf-high leather boots, or preferably snake guards. Rattlesnakes are generally nonaggressive toward people unless they are startled, cornered, or stepped on. If you are in a grassy area, alert them of your approach by sweeping grassy areas with a long stick before entering. Never jump over logs, turn over rocks, put your hands in rock crevices, or sit down without first checking for snakes. Remember, rattlesnakes do not always shake their rattles before striking, so do not rely solely on your sense of hearing. If you are confronted with a rattlesnake, remain calm and still at first, then try to back away slowly and carefully.
If bitten by a rattlesnake, remain as calm as possible. Keep in mind that venomous snakes do not always release venom when they bite. Do not try to kill the snake because it may lead to more bites and will delay your arrival at the hospital for professional treatment.
Immediately after being bitten, check the injured area. If it is a venomous snake bite, there may be one or two visible fang marks in addition to teeth marks. The most common and fairly quick reactions to venom are swelling and pain in the bite area, followed by a black and blue discoloration of the tissue, possibly causing nausea. Painful swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin or armpit usually occurs within one hour if the bite is on the leg or arm.
The most useful snakebite first-aid kit consists of car keys (for driving immediately to the hospital) and a cell phone (for calling the hospital and/or poison center).
First Aid for Snake Bites:
- Remain calm so as not to increase circulation and thus the spread of the venom.
- Immediately remove anything from the body that may cause increased swelling below the bite area (i.e., rings, watch, shoes, tight clothing, etc.).
- If possible, wash the wound with soap and water.
- Immobilize the bite area, keeping it in a neutral to below the heart position.
- Get to the hospital immediately. Do not wait for the pain to get severe. The use of approved antivenin is the most effective treatment for a venomous bite. If possible, have another person drive, and call ahead to the hospital and poison center.
What Not to Do!
- Do not use a tourniquet.
- Do not make an incision at the bite site.
- Do not suck out the venom with your mouth as this may increase the risk of infection.
- Do not pack the limb in ice.
To learn more about treatment methods or if you have questions about first-aid procedures for snake bites, call the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center at: 800-222-1222.
Source: Colorado State University, Extension Service, www.ext.colostate.edu
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