Kayla Bowman, 15, learns the hard way it's copperhead season

Jun. 15, 2013 @ 03:19 AM

Kayla Bowman never saw the snake that bit her.

The 15-year-old was walking through the woods in the Grace Chapel area when her foot, protected only by a flip-flop, slipped into a small hole. She felt a sharp, stinging sensation, “like two needles,” she said.

Bowman had been bitten by a copperhead, but she didn’t know that at the time. She and the friend she was with cycled through a list of more common maladies they suspected: the spines of a holly leaf, an ant bite, a bee sting.

Bowman shrugged off the pain and kept walking through the woods, then went out to dinner. By the time she got back home, her foot had a bruised look and had swelled to about three times its normal size. The two fang marks in her foot were no longer visible.

Tonya Bowman took her daughter to Caldwell Memorial Hospital, where a doctor took one look at her foot and knew it was a copperhead bite. Kayla was taken by ambulance to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, but it was too late for antivenin. It’ll take two to three months for her foot to heal, and she’ll spend her summer on crutches.

Copperhead bites are extremely painful but rarely fatal, said Valerie Kelly, an infection preventionist at Caldwell Memorial Hospital. They can cause extensive scarring and, in the worst cases, loss of limb use. Severe bites can also come with drops in blood pressure, tingling around the mouth, and vomiting.

Because copperhead venom contains enzymes that break down tissue, anyone who’s bitten should seek medical attention right away, said Anna Dulaney, a clinical toxicologist who works as assistant director for education at the Carolinas Poison Center.

“Just think about the way a snake digests a mouse,” Dulaney said.

In the long term, patients usually experience recurrent pain and swelling in the affected limb, Dulaney said. The average time for full recovery is about six weeks.

Bites are most common in the summer, when the snakes come out of hibernation – and we humans head back outside.

“It starts as soon as the weather gets warm and lasts as long as the weather is warm,” Dulaney said.

Anyone who spends time outside in the summer is at some risk of a copperhead bite. Many of the bite victims in calls to the poison center are gardeners or children playing outside, Dulaney said. Both activities tend to involve reaching – reaching to weed or mulch, or to retrieve a ball that has rolled into high grass.

That collides with the copperhead’s preferred habitat: Near high grass, vines and trash, and in areas with a lot of brush.

“What happens with most of our bites that we get called about are children who step on the snake – they don’t see it,” Dulaney said. “Or the soccer ball or the toy or whatever goes into the bushes, they reach in to grab it, and it happens to land near the snake. The snake is threatened – the snake is acting in defense. They don’t attack people.”

Although there’s no sure way to avoid a copperhead bite (short of barricading yourself inside), there are ways to reduce your risk.

Dulaney recommends being careful about mice in your house – because if you share your home with snakes’ primary source of food, you’re more likely to see snakes.

People should never go barefoot outside, she said, and should be even more careful in the woods. Denim jeans and leather hiking boots are good options.

In the summer, people should be more mindful of where they’re stepping. And if you’re reaching into grass or brush, poke with a stick before reaching in with your hand, Dulaney said.

If you are bitten, the first rule of thumb is not to panic, she said. Remove anything constricting around the bite (such as shoes, socks or long pants, and rings and watches on the hands), because the area of the bite is going to swell.

Never make cuts near the bite to suck out venom, Dulaney said. And even though there’s swelling, don’t ice the bite. That helps concentrate the venom in the area of the bite and can worsen tissue damage.

Washing with soap and water is fine, Dulaney said.

And all victims should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Kayla Bowman and her mom, Tonya, recommend staying calm, not using ice, not wearing flip-flops in the woods, and taking the bite seriously – whether you see a snake or not.

“Copperheads,” Kayla said, “you don’t have to see them for it to be there.”