For the next few months, baby rattlesnakes pose a risk to humans because they can't announce their presence as easily as their adult counterparts.
They are harder to see, and less likely to warn before they do strike. When the snakes are first born, they don’t yet have a rattle. It doesn’t develop until they’ve shed their skin a few times, says Keith Boesen is the director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center. Even when they do develop a rattle, it doesn’t sound like the rattle that desert dwellers are conditioned to react to, he says.
Photo: Dan Massey
That means sometimes people don’t even know when a baby snake bites them.
“Some of these snakes are actually very small, so they don’t have the power behind them to inflict a lot of pain, but they can inflict a great deal of damage with the venom that they’ll introduce to your body," Boesen says. "So you may not feel it right away, or you may feel it and look down and not be able to see it right away because either it was so small or the environment you were in camouflaged it that well that we’ve had people that didn’t know they were bit but they knew something happened."
The Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center is in Tucson, based in the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy.It handles calls for all Arizona residents except those who live in Maricopa County. (The center is staffed 24-hours a day, reachable at 1-800-222-1222.)
The people who staff the phone line know the signs and subsequent symptoms of a snake bite, Boesen says, even if the caller doesn’t have a lot of information about what happened.
“We provide just as much information as we do help for those who have been exposed to something. We are an emergency service, but we are capable of answering questions as well. So never feel that calling us would be an inconvenience to us, that’s exactly why we’re here," Boesen says.
The poison center will typically ask a person who suspects they’ve been bitten to describe what they were doing and what symptoms they’re having. Boesen says anyone who is certain they’ve been bit by a snake should go immediately to the hospital.
The trained staffers on the poison control line can also help throughout the treatment process, because the poison center has doctors available to talk directly to other medical professionals.
“Throughout the Arizona area there are many hospitals or many clinics, etc., that don’t always see snake envenomation patients on a regular basis. There can be difficulties that can be related to snake envenomations whether they be low blood pressure, anaphylaxis, things like that that sometimes need some additional individuals that have experience with that," says Peter Chase, an emergency doctor and medical toxicologist who works at the poison center.
The Center handles 200 to 300 calls a year with questions about snake bites, and of those calls, 150 to 200 are actually bites, Boesen says.
“During August and September we can average almost one a day. So a significant number of our bites come in during that two-month period of time," he says.