Snakebites are up in at least five states - and experts say the mild winter is to blame.
The rise in snakebites - at least two of which have resulted in deaths - is happening largely because rattlesnakes and copperheads have been making an early debut this year. The venomous snakes have come out of their dens because warmer temperatures ended their hibernation season early.
The numbers for fatal bites aren't out yet, but 26-year-old Wade Westbrook died from a copperhead bite in Tennessee in January. West Virginia serpent-handling Pastor Mack Wolford died while handling his rattlesnake in May.
Most bites aren't deadly. But even non-fatal bites can bring fever, vomiting, dizziness and severe pain.
"This year is a banner year for snakebites in California for sure and probably similarly across the country where there has been a warm winter and early spring," says Stuart Heard, executive director of the California poison control system.
•In California, snakebites reported to the poison control center were up to 129 for April and May compared to 70 in the same time period last year.
•Utah Poison Control Center reports eight snakebites from April through the first three weeks in May of this year, up from three last year.
•So far this year, 235 bites have been reported in Florida. The average for the last four years from January to late May is 220.
Georgia's Poison Control center is 15-20 percent busier treating snakebite victims than they were this time last year, says center director Gaylord Lopez. So far at least 120 Georgians report bites.
"We usually start getting them around the beginning of March or so," Lopez says." This year, surprisingly, we realized our first snakebite call was in the first week of January."
In 2010, 3,521 people were bitten by snakes in the United States, says Brett Schuster, spokesperson for the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Figures for 2011 and 2012 aren't yet available.
Of the bites, most are on the arms and legs with a few occasionally on the head, neck and face, medical toxicologist Michelle Ruha says.
"There is a lot of mythology out there about home remedy treatments for snake bites - none have been proven to work," Ruha says. "Applying a tourniquet, cutting into the bite to release venom - all of these things are not recommended. Go straight to an emergency department and get medical attention because these bites can be very dangerous."
Although people, and pets, of all ages are bitten accidentally, a significant number of bites happen when people try to pick up or manipulate snakes, says Vicki Coppen, spokeswoman for the Florida Poison Information Center in Jacksonville.
"This latter category correlates highly with males and the presence of alcohol," Coppen says. "Do not pick up a snake for any reason, remember that even dead snakes can inflict a bite."
So what do you do if you see a snake? "Head the other way," says Carol Decker, sanctuary director for Mass Audubon.
"Any of these snakes, if someone is going to pick them up they will be protecting themselves," Decker says. "It's the temperature, they get too hot they probably get a little crabby. These snakes are saying 'I am here so leave me alone. You go somewhere else.' They don't want to be harassed."
Tips on treating a snakebite
- Immediately dial 911 or call local emergency medical services.
- Try to remember the color and shape of the snake, which can help with treatment.
- Stay still and calm to slow the spread of venom.
- Lie or sit with the bite below the level of the heart.
- Cover the bite with a clean, dry dressing.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention