Frequently Asked Questions

This question is actually not possible to answer with certainty, because it supposes that there is a way to measure “venomousness” in a fashion we can all agree on. Many experts answer that it is the Inland Taipan of Australia, because its drop-by-drop concentration of venom has great potency when measured by its ability to kill rodents. But this does not necessarily mean it would have the greatest ability to kill people! Nobody (thank goodness) has ever done a study to compare the relative potency of all of the venoms of the world in humans, but we know with certainty that rodents and humans have different ecological relationships with snakes. Our resistance to venoms may very well be different, too. Furthermore, venom is only dangerous if it is injected into a person effectively; so the dangerousness of a snake depends on its size, style of attack, fang anatomy, and closeness to the person. The saw-scaled viper of the Middle East kills a lot more people each year than the inland Taipan ever did.

Well, not really. This story is based on a partial truth: some of the mildest scorpions are quite large. In Arizona, for instance, the desert giant hairy scorpion can give you a painful sting, but the venom has very little effect on humans. Among the smaller types of scorpion, however, the dangerous bark scorpions and non-dangerous stripe-tailed scorpions look very, very similar to the untrained eye. And if you have to choose between being stung by a full-grown mother bark scorpion or one of the tiny babies riding on her back, be aware: Mom’s bigger venom apparatus is definitely more dangerous.

No, mature animals generally cause worse bites. This is another story based on a partial truth. In Arizona our most common cause of snakebite is the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake; and studies indicate that baby Westerns have a different blend of venom components than their parents do. On a drop-for-drop basis, that means that some of the components are present in higher concentration in venom from baby snakes than from adults. In the late summer, some of our patients will start out looking as if they have a mild bite on, say, the foot, but hours later we discover that their blood is showing signs of venom trouble. Doctors then say, “oh, that’s because it’s a baby snake bite! Worse blood trouble (proportional to the foot injury) than if it were an adult! The doctors may be right (although this has not been proven); but this does NOT mean that baby snakes are more dangerous: quite the opposite! For the same amount of blood trouble, a mature snake’s bite might have caused a much worse foot injury, because of the much bigger dose of venom involved.

Sometimes! In the United States, we have three kinds of coral snake. The Florida coral snake is the one with the scariest reputation. Some people bitten by Florida corals go into ventilatory arrest (that’s where you totally stop breathing) from nerve paralysis. Texas coral snakes have a slightly less scary reputation, although we don’t have enough information to make a really strong statement about them. The Arizona coral snake is so small that it has a hard time getting enough venom into a person to cause harm (although the potency in the laboratory is pretty high). Further south, as you travel through Mexico and South America, there are a lot of different coral snakes, some of which are extremely dangerous. Of course, any snake can give what we call a “dry bite,” without serious medical consequences.

Sort of, but only because of a name technicality. People get into all kinds of silly word games about spiders, because the common names and the scientific names don’t always line up exactly. A purist will tell you that the only spider rightly termed “Brown Recluse” is Loxosceles reclusa, which lives in the Mississippi Valley region of the US, far from Arizona. In Arizona we have a number of cousins of that spider, however, which are other species in the genus Loxosceles. You could call Loxosceles arizonica the “Arizona brown spider,” and Loxosceles deserta the “desert brown spider,” and Loxosceles sabina the “Sabino Canyon brown spider,” if you want to. But they sure do look like the brown recluse, and they have the same kind of venom.

There are so many ways, you would not believe it! First, find out who the experts in your town are. If you have a university nearby, it probably has biologists, maybe herpetologists and arachnologists and people like that. The biochemistry department might have someone interested in venom, or the medical school might have toxicologists or toxinologists. Look them up in the university’s website, call, make an appointment, and ask questions. Believe me, we university professors LIVE to meet students who ask what we think! You will discover that the range of career possibilities is huge: you can work with the creatures themselves in captivity or in the wild, you can learn how to discover chemicals valuable to the world by analyzing venom, you can get in on the historical wave of genetic discovery that has begun during this generation, you can be a doctor, a nurse, a pharmacologist or pharmacist, an epidemiologist, a world traveler, a writer of government policy or an expert in manufacturing of drugs. Find out if your zoo or veterinarian accepts volunteers. Work hard to learn science, especially biology, but also learn foreign languages, and something about other cultures and values: you will get a lot more out of your venom travels, or your medical career, if you are comfortable among all kinds of human beings.

Goodness, no. We have a huge gigantic poster of a snake, which looks really cool; and we keep a few scorpions in the office because they are undemanding little guys. But live snakes are much better off either in the wild or cared for by professionals, like herpetologists and zoo collections managers. VIPER’s office team counts on our affiliated reptile professionals to take care of the animals, at locations around the world.

Very simple: get your local poison control center involved. Anywhere in the United States, 24 hours a day, you can reach your poison center by calling 800-222-1222. So can your ambulance crew, or your doctor. During the past 20 years, there have been serious shortages of antivenom for rattlesnake bite, coral snake bite, scorpion sting and black widow bite. There has never been a good supply of antivenom for exotic (meaning not native to the US) animals. But in all cases, poison control centers keep tabs on the supply. Poison centers have expert toxicologists who can advise your doctor, too; and in some places the experts will even visit you in the hospital.

That is a really kind offer, and thank you for thinking of us. But no, we do not have a shortage of most kinds of venom; and scientists commonly want to examine the animal and oversee venom collection themselves in order to be as consistent as possible with how it is handled and stored. The prices you have heard about are probably for ANTIvenom, not venom. Drug companies use venom as one of the starting products in manufacturing antivenom.

To make antivenom, you take advantage of the natural immune system of a vertebrate animal. This could be a horse, a sheep, a goat, a donkey, a rabbit, a mouse, a shark, a human being: all of these (and more) have been used for the purpose in the past. You give that animal a carefully crafted immunization, followed by a series of booster shots, kind of like when we give tetanus shots to people. After a while, your animal is making a whole lot antibodies against whatever you used to immunize it (part of the body’s way of protecting itself against toxins). The animal can then serve as a blood donor from time to time, and the antibodies can be harvested and purified into a treatment for snakebite or scorpion sting. (It’s really not a bad career choice for a domestic animal.)

Not at all! Modern antivenoms cause very few side effects for most people, even when they get them a second time. In the past, most antivenoms were of the old-fashioned allergy-provoking type, and back then some doctors and many snake experts avoided risking a second use of antivenom. The reason was that a person’s immune system might recognize the animal serum in the antivenom, and there might be either a serious allergic reaction or a severe case of “serum sickness.” But even back then, many people got antivenom a second (or third, or fourth…) time, often by using allergy medications at the same time.

Serum sickness is, thank goodness, a less and less frequent complication of antivenom treatment, now that manufacturers are switching over to safer designs for their products. In the Bad Old Days, close to 85% of our snakebitten patients in Arizona used to come back to their doctors, 7-10 days after treatment, complaining of the itchiest rash of their lives. They had hives, and sometimes really gross-looking hemorrhagic rashes on their legs, plus aches and pains of their joints and muscles, dehydration, fever, and a general feeling of misery that sometimes meant going back into the hospital because of the side effects! Nowadays we still see the occasional rash a week after antivenom treatment, but we almost never have to treat full-blown serum sickness when the patient has received one of the modern products.

Before the antivenom was administered, the patient (or a parent or guardian) should have signed an Informed Consent document. On that document you will find names and numbers of the responsible doctor at your hospital, as well as the central VIPER administrative number. If you’ve lost the paper, then call VIPER during regular working hours, at 520-626-1118, unless this is an emergency. In an emergency situation you can reach the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center at 520-626-6016 or your nearest poison center at 800-222-1222.

Hey, be nice! We at the VIPER Institute respect and appreciate all of our patients, and friends, and faculty, and students, even the ones who do things that run a risk of being bitten or stung. We looked closely at the statistics collected by the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center a while back, and we found that about one in three of our patients was indeed a male patient bitten on the hand, which suggests he may have been handling the animal on purpose. But one in three was a male bitten on the foot, which much more often happens because of an accident, and one in three was female, generally with a foot bite. We looked more closely at the stories of the men with hand bites and, sure enough, some of them had been drinking alcohol or goofing around. But a lot of them were doing other things, like reaching for a golf ball, or rock climbing, or trying to protect a child. Some had conditions like impaired vision, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s, that affected their ability to avoid a bite.

Yup. And you’ll never guess what age they are. Divide life into 15-year parts, birth to 15, 15 to 30 and so on. And the peak age for women to be bitten by snakes is… 45 to 60 years of age! How about that? We call it the “age of gardening.” Women 45 to 60 are also likely to need reading glasses, but they might not like wearing them outdoors while working in the garden. It’s hard to tell a snake from a stick if your eyes don’t focus right! Jogging in the morning and taking out the trash in the evening are also times when women should pay attention to what is on the ground.

Now you’re asking a trick question. A lot of our patients have pet snakes, in their heated homes, and sometimes those animals are awake year round. (Suggestion: on New Year’s Eve do not attempt to handle snakes.) But if you’re wondering when to expect to see them outdoors, then the answer is going to depend on where you live. Colder climates have shorter “snake seasons.” Here in Arizona we start hearing about outdoor rattlesnake bites around March. Cases peak in August and fade away again in November.

First, get away from the snake, and tell the people nearby so they can get away, too. Call 9-1-1 so that you can get to the Emergency Room fast, because the sooner the better for antivenom. Rest the bitten part, and avoid the temptation to cut or freeze or shock it or anything else that will make the tissue injury worse.

Yeah, but I meant, what if I'm bitten while I'm on a hike?

First, get away from the snake, and tell the people nearby so they can get away, too. Call 9-1-1 on your cell phone, so that you can get to the Emergency Room fast, because the sooner the better for antivenom. Rest the bitten part, using a splint or sling if you can arrange one, and avoid the temptation to cut or freeze or shock it or anything else that will make the tissue injury worse.

No, I actually meant what if I'm way the heck out there where there's no cell coverage?

First, get away from the snake, and tell the people nearby so they can get away, too. Have a companion run ahead to find help or to reach cell coverage to call 9-1-1, so that you can get to the Emergency Room fast, because the sooner the better for antivenom. Rest the bitten part, using a splint or sling if you can arrange one, and avoid the temptation to cut or freeze or shock it or anything else that will make the tissue injury worse.

What I meant was, what if I'm way the heck out there where there's no cell coverage, and there is nobody with me?

First, get away from the snake. Do whatever it takes to start limping back to civilization, so that you can get to the Emergency Room fast, because the sooner the better for antivenom. Rest the bitten part, using a splint or sling if you can arrange one, and avoid the temptation to cut or freeze or shock it or anything else that will make the tissue injury worse.

No, what I really meant was what if I’m way the heck out there, and I don’t have anybody else with me, and it’s a really severe bite, and I’m going into shock, and there are hungry bears all around me?

You may get eaten by bears.

 

Aren't those animal pictures wonderful? They are the work of a student at the Institute of Biotechnology in Cuernavaca, named Edgar Neri. We noticed Edgar's beautiful photography when he posted pictures of a scientific collecting trip, and he was kind enough to share a few for this website. Edgar retains copyright to all of his pictures. If you are interested to re-use a photo or to reach him about his work, please send us a note through the Contact function here, and we'll put you in touch.