Bite and Sting Season

4 min read

| By Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, RN |

In what may be one of the most passionate (or imprudent) examples of dedication to science in recent years, a researcher in Brazil stepped on one species of the country’s most venomous snakes more than 4,000 times to determine what makes it most likely to bite. His findings, recently published in Scientific Reports, come just in time for bite and sting season in the United States (May through September), when snakes, biting insects, bees and wasps, spiders, and stinging aquatic creatures come into increasing contact with humans. It’s also just in time for the new bites and stings portal featured in the Gale Health and Wellness database.

The Brazilian study reported that smaller vipers bite a human more often than larger ones, that female vipers bite more often than males, that vipers are more aggressive in hotter temperatures, and that stepping near the head of a viper results in more frequent bites than stepping near its tail. These findings might not prove practical or even useful to a person living or playing in an area with venomous snakes, as most people wouldn’t take the time to size up a viper or determine its sex before attempting to avoid it. But these behavior patterns are helpful to health officials in countries where supplies of antivenom (also called antivenin) are limited, as it helps them distribute the emergency treatment for snakebite to exactly the areas where venomous snakes are most likely to bite.

The Brazilian researcher expects his findings to extend to most venomous snakes in other areas of the Americas. In fact, he used an American rattlesnake in designing the study, and received an envenomation when it bit through his boots. (Envenomation: The introduction of venom into a body by means of the bite or sting of a venomous animal.)

About 7,000 people in the U.S. are envenomated from the bite of one of 30 species of venomous snakes each year, but deaths from snakebite are rare when antivenom is administered. When death does happen from snakebite despite treatment, it’s usually due to a severe allergic reaction to either the venom or antivenom. Allergic reactions are also the most frequent cause of serious complications from spider or ant bites, bee stings, or the stings of jellyfish. This is why about 2 million Americans carry epinephrine auto-injectors (such as the EpiPen) when they’re outdoors, especially during bite and sting season.

The new bites and stings portal in Gale Health and Wellness features information on first aid for the most frequent bites and stings endured by people in the U.S., and corrects commonly held misconceptions that could actually complicate the situation. Don’t use a tourniquet for a snakebite, for example, or touch an embedded tick with a hot matchstick. Also, urinating on a jellyfish sting is not a good idea. (I do wonder how this ever became an option.)

Snakes may grab the number one spot for the most feared animal that bites, but it’s worth remembering that the tiny mosquito is still the deadliest animal on the planet for humans. Mosquito bites cause an estimated 1 million deaths each year worldwide by transmitting diseases such as malaria, Zika, dengue fever, and West Nile. Tick-borne diseases are also on the rise in the U.S.

A little bit of prevention coinciding with your outdoor summer environment goes a long way toward preventing bites and stings. Purple flags flown on beaches, for example, indicate an increased presence of stinging creatures. A bit of Bacillus thuringiensis suspension or pellets dropped into a birdbath or pond can eliminate mosquito larvae, but won’t harm birds or beneficial insects. Proper clothing can also deter mosquito and tick bites, while reducing the overall area of skin that needs mosquito repellant. Waving a long stick on the ground in front of you along a trail may alert you to the presence of a snake in time to prevent a bite. And after a hike, remove any ticks that may have latched onto your skin.

While wishing everyone a bite- and sting-free summer, I hope you’ll also consider the role that these creatures have within the ecosystem and, sometimes, their unique beauty. I’ve already noticed several blue dragons (Glaucus atlanticus) along the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico this season, and if you’ve never seen one of these amazingly colorful creatures, I suggest you Google it right away. If you’re lucky enough to encounter one, admire it from a distance—its sting packs a powerful punch.

Now, let’s get outside.

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