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Published Oct. 22, 2008

Snakes alive!

It's that time of year in Florida, when the kids are playing outside, the neighbors are gardening and the snakes seem to be out in force.

It's hard to know just how many snakebites there are each year in Florida because no single agency tracks them.

A large percentage of people who are bitten by snakes call poison control, or their doctors do, said Cynthia Lewis-Younger, director of the Florida Poison Information Center's Tampa office.

The center received about 350 reports of snakebites in both 2006 and 2007. Numbers have gone up steadily since 1999, according to Lewis-Younger.

Much of that increase is attributed to development encroaching on snake habitats, she said.

Fatal snakebites are rare, according to Steve Johnson, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida's Plant City campus and UF's Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Statistics collected by the institute show that it's only once ever four or five years that someone dies from a snakebite. Death from a bee sting is more common, according to the institute.

"You're much more likely to get killed on the way to or from work or from smoking cigarettes," Johnson said.

There are five types of poisonous snakes living in Florida: The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnake, cottonmouth (also known as a water moccasin), copperhead and coral snake.

The most common bites come from the rattlers, Lewis-Younger said.

But the black, red and yellow coral snake is the most deadly and the most attractive to children. "You have a young child who's out in the yard, (and) a coral snake is a bright, pretty object," Johnson said.

He advises against backyard sandboxes - coral snakes love them. Homeowners should also clear out debris piles or other places where snakes might hide.

Coral snake bites could be especially dangerous right now, experts say, because there is a shortage of antivenin.

No one in the United States is manufacturing it, and the only supply is stored in Miami, said Al Cruz, chief of Miami Dade Fire Rescue's Venom Response Bureau.

Cruz said his team has an agreement to use state-owned airplanes to fly the antivenin wherever it's needed in Florida.

The team should be able to get the antivenin anywhere in the state within a couple of hours, according to Cruz.

If you're bitten by a snake, call 911. Common first-aid remedies such as using a tourniquet or sucking out the venom can only make the situation worse, Lewis-Younger said.

Tourniquets cut off circulation and can cause a person to lose a limb. Sucking leads to infection.

"In most cases you can almost certainly get to a hospital in time," she said.

Jan Wesner can be reached at or 661-2439.



You, your child or your dog have been bitten by a snake. What do you do?

If a human is bitten:

- Call 911 and ask for an ambulance.

- Call the poison control hotline toll-free at 1-800-222-1222 and tell them what hospital you're going to.

- Keep the victim calm, keep the bite below the heart, and wash the bite with soap and water.

- Record the time of the bite and any symptoms.

If a pet is bitten:

- Call a veterinarian and take the animal there immediately.

- Keep the pet calm and limit activity. Carry pet to the car.

Source: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences