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We have had questions about what to do if bitten by a rattlesnake, but this question, about copperheads specifically, is different because (a) copperheads are less deadly than rattlesnakes; and (b) copperheads are suburban snakes.

Copperheads are much on the minds of people in my area of quasi-rural Virginia these days because the claim is that they are more numerous than usual this year because of the enormous number of 17-year cicadas this cycle. I don't know if this claim of copperhead abundance is true. It is more likely that copperheads seem more abundant because the cicada feast is everywhere -- on lawns, gardens, porches, driveways, walkways, trails -- not tucked away in the woods.

The answer should focus on what to do if bitten by a copperhead while one is alone and also should take into account the time it would take for the bitten person to walk to her car plus drive to a walk-in clinic. For example, it would take me ten minutes to drive to a walk in clinic from my house, but if I were on one of my local favorite trails, possibly over an hour to limp out and drive to the clinic.

Until the cicadas are gone, my strategy is not to be alone while working in places where I do not have a clear view, but then the question becomes less crucial.

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    This is a great question. Most snakebite first aid guides tell you not to move, and they don't address the possible need to transport yourself from a footpath back to a road or at least a path that an emergency vehicle can drive on. – csk Jun 14 at 20:41
  • Don't tease or play with the copperhead and you will not have a problem . I encounter them often all have been docile . The one I cut free of plastic netting was upset but just wanted to get back in the woods. – blacksmith37 Jun 15 at 19:09
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Although you mention being in the suburbs, if you are an hour walk from a road, this is effectively a wilderness first aid situation. This guide to wilderness first aid of a snakebite seems to cover the topic pretty well. It doesn't seem that copperheads require much special advice, except that your odds of a "dry" or non-venomous bite are higher than with many other venomous snakes, so the outcome is more likely to be favorable. Go to the hospital even if you think your bite was dry.

The advice from the Snakebite Foundation guide seems excellent, so I'm going to 100% quote it below (because sometimes links go dead) rather than try to summarize it. One thing I will add, is to make sure you know the most effective way to describe your location, such as the names of the trails in that park, and well-known landmarks. Plan for this in advance, and have a map of the park with you (either hard copy or saved on your phone). Some parks have their own park ranger service with an emergency number that they recommend calling them instead of 911 because they will be better able to understand where you are and how to find you. Find out if that's the case, and make sure you have that number in your phone.

WHAT SHOULD YOU ACTUALLY DO IN THE EVENT OF A SNAKEBITE IN THE BACKCOUNTRY? The following steps are what you actually should do in the event of a snakebite in the backcountry from any species of venomous snake. Ultimately you are going to need antivenom because antivenom is the only definitive treatment for a snake envenomation, but the tips below are designed to help you get to the hospital alive and leave the hospital in one piece.

  1. Carefully walk backwards and find a safe space to sit down nearby before the venom drops your blood pressure and you pass out and hit your head. Many snake venoms disrupt blood clotting and the last thing you want is to cause internal bleeding on top of your snakebite.

  2. Remove any rings, watches, bracelets, and anything else that could become a tourniquet if your limb swells up like a balloon. These items can be very difficult to remove once swelling has occurred, so exercise some foresight and remove them right away.

  3. Circle the site of the bite with sharpie and write the time next to it. Mark the edge of the swelling and pain, make a list of your symptoms, and repeat every 30 minutes or so. Always record the time next to each mark. The vast majority of snakebites can be diagnosed and treated by your symptoms and severity of the envenomation without requiring a positive identification of the species responsible. That’s why this is so important!

...then mark the leading edge of the swelling and pain (separately, if needed) and repeat the process as they advance up the limb. It is particularly important to record the time that swelling reaches and/or passes the various joints on the affected limb.

  1. If you begin to experience signs of anaphylaxis (swelling of face, mouth, or throat; hives; difficulty breathing, etc) use an epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen or generic) if you have one and then take Benadryl and Zantac. If you don't carry these things in the backcountry you should do yourself a favor and get them because you can't MacGyver an EpiPen out of nothing. A lot of things can cause anaphylaxis and EpiPen can also be used as a last-ditch intervention for severe asthma attacks.

  2. If you have cell phone reception call 911, tell them where you are, when you were bitten, and the list of current symptoms you just wrote down. If you aren’t in the United States, look up the local emergency services number (whatever the equivalent of 911 is) and add it to your phone before you head out.

  3. If you don't have reception, plot the safest and most expedient path to find it or reach a vehicle (whatever is safer/faster) and then start hiking out.

Time is tissue and it may be better to walk yourself out in an hour than to sit on your butt for 5 hours until a helicopter can show up. I think the idea that one should do everything possible to avoid speeding up circulation of venom is bad advice. You are already terrified from being bitten by a snake so your heart rate and blood pressure are already sky high. I've treated lots of bites in remote places and pretty much all of them had to hike out to reach the hospital. Figure out the fastest, safest route to find help and then make it happen.

Source: HOW TO SURVIVE A SNAKEBITE IN THE WILDERNESS, snakebitefoundation.org

Don'ts

  • Don't use a tourniquet.
  • Don't try to cut or suck out the venom.
  • Don't apply ice or a cold pack.
  • Don't try to catch the snake.
  • Don't take any NSAID analgesics (aspirin, ibuprofen, Aleve, Motrin, etc.) for pain control.

Note: The "copperhead" snake in question here is the North American species, eastern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), not the Australian copperhead. First aid for an eastern copperhead bite should follow standard snakebite first aid practices, which means do not use a pressure-immobilization bandage for an (American) eastern copperhead bite. Don't follow advice for bites of the Australian copperhead, which is a neurotoxic elapid. Australian copperhead bites may be helped by a pressure-immobilization bandage (but only if you fully understand the correct way to do it; incorrect use of a pressure-immobilization bandage is worse than not using one at all). The linked page includes instructions for pressure-immobilization bandages, but I omitted them here to avoid confusion.

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    if you have cell phone service WhatThreeWords will probably be helpful. The parks people and police in Canada recommend it for telling people where you are. – Kate Gregory Jun 14 at 22:24
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    @ab2 they insist on using Google Maps, which lacks the features of proper outdoors maps. While W3W was initially enthusiastically adopted by the emergency services here in the UK, problems are starting to emerge around homophones and accents – Chris H Jun 15 at 9:35
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    See this recent BBC article about rescuers not being super enthusiastic anymore. bbc.co.uk/news/technology-57156797 - there’s a lot of obvious downsides: mispronunciation, poor map clarity, homophones, a private algorithm, not being internationalised, etc. I’m not quite sure why people can’t just use the Lat Long coordinates displayed in the compass app / map app / dedicated GPS app? – Tim Jun 15 at 9:46
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    Seems like a separate question about the usefulness of WTW would be better than cluttering up your comment space – Kate Gregory Jun 15 at 12:27
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    @KateGregory there is this question about W3W and its usefulness – fyrepenguin Jun 15 at 12:59

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