Common outdoor pests can put a damper on summer plans. But some less-common bites and stings—like those from snakes or jellyfish—could send you to the emergency room.
There are several things you can do in the moments after a snakebite or jellyfish sting to keep yourself safe, reduce pain and ensure the best recovery.
According to the state’s Department of Natural Resources, South Carolina is home to 38 snake species. Six of these species are venomous (poisonous).
Snakes are most active from the early spring into the fall, making now a good time to understand what to do if you fall victim to a snakebite.
Reactions to snakebites can vary from person to person, and it’s hard to predict how severe a reaction will be, says Dr. Melissa Ellis-Yarian, a family medicine doctor affiliated with Roper St. Francis Healthcare.
“The species of snake, the location of the bite on the body, the age of the person and their other medical conditions can all influence how severe the response will be,” Dr. Ellis-Yarian says.
Snakebite dos and don’ts
Because reactions to snakebites are so unpredictable, Dr. Ellis-Yarian says you should always be evaluated as quickly as possible in an emergency room.
Your snakebite may not be from a venomous snake, but it may be hard to know for sure. And it’s better to be safe than sorry. Venomous snakebites can cause life-threatening reactions, including bleeding, kidney failure and muscle breakdown.
“A venomous snakebite may require antivenom therapy, which is most effective when given within six hours of the bite,” says Dr. Ellis-Yarian.
Dr. Ellis-Yarian says there are some things you can do immediately after being bitten, especially if you are far from care or are waiting for help.
- Move away. Get far enough away from the snake so that you are safely out of reach.
- Prepare for possible swelling. Remove rings, watches, jewelry or tight clothing from the area where you have been bitten.
- Clean the wound. Once you are at a safe distance from the snake, stay calm and clean the bite wound with soap and water. Apply a clean, dry dressing.
- Remain calm and still. Keep the wounded area still and at a level below your heart to help reduce the flow of venom.
- Snap a photo. If possible—and only from a safe distance—take a photo of the snake that bit you. Though a photo can help your doctor make treatment decisions, Dr. Ellis-Yarian cautions “Do not delay seeking treatment in to take a picture of the snake.”
There are some things you should never do after being bitten by a snake, Dr. Ellis-Yarian says.
- Do not apply a tourniquet or any other constrictive dressing to the wound. This can damage nerves, tendons and blood vessels.
- Do not apply ice to the wound.
- Do not cut the wound or attempt to suck out the venom orally or mechanically. This does not actually remove much of the venom and can lead to infection.
- Do not drink alcohol or take any drugs that could alter your level of consciousness.
- Do not eat or drink caffeine as this can speed absorption of the venom.
- Do not try to handle or capture the snake, even if it is dead.
- Do not seek treatment in express or urgent care settings. The emergency room should be your first stop.
Jellyfish stings, and even injuries from stingrays, require care and monitoring, but not necessarily a trip to the emergency department.
“Most jellyfish stings are minor and get better with home treatment,” says Dr. Ellis-Yarian. “There is no need to wait in an emergency room for care of minor jellyfish stings or stingray barb injuries.”
There are some exceptions, says Dr. Ellis-Yarian. Get to the emergency room quickly if you have been stung on or near the eye. Call 911 if you experience signs of an allergic reaction, including:
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling of the throat, face, lips or tongue
Though not technically a jellyfish, the Portuguese Man-o-War has been found in South Carolina waters.
“They can inflict extremely painful stings that can sometimes lead to severe symptoms in humans, including headaches, muscle spasm, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, weakness, difficulty breathing and even shock,” says Dr. Ellis-Yarian. “If you experience any of these you should call 911 and get to an emergency room immediately.”
Treating jellyfish stings
There are many homegrown tips for treating jellyfish stings. Dr. Ellis-Yarian says to avoid the following suggestions, which aren’t proven to be helpful and may make symptoms worse:
- Scraping the stingers
- Rinsing with human urine
- Rinsing with seawater or freshwater
- Rubbing meat tenderizer on your skin
- Rinsing with alcohol
Dr. Ellis-Yarian offers a six-step approach to treating jellyfish stings:
- Get out of the water.
- Rinse the area with vinegar for at least 30 seconds.
- Use tweezers to carefully remove any stingers or tentacles.
- Soak the affected area on the skin in hot water (110-113 degrees Fahrenheit) for 20 to 45 minutes.
- Treat itching or swelling with over-the-counter oral antihistamines containing diphenhydramine or treat with hydrocortisone cream.
- Treat pain and inflammation with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (ibuprofen).
To schedule an appointment with a Roper St. Francis doctor, call (843) 402-CARE (2273).