Found in many areas of the United States, rattlesnakes rely on highly toxic venom to capture and subdue prey. Although rattlesnakes tend to bite only when threatened, an estimated 8,000 people are bitten by rattlers annually. Due to timely medical intervention and the availability of antivenin injections made from antibodies to venom, fewer than 1 percent of rattlesnake bites result in death.
Rattlesnakes, characterized by a set of rattles on the tail that alert passersby to an impending strike, are found throughout the United States. From the large Eastern Diamondback found in swampy and coastal areas in Florida and throughout the south, to the numerous rattlesnake species native to the desert southwest, these snakes prey on small mammals, lizards and birds. Rattlesnakes avoid open spaces and are most active during warm weather.
The Bite of a Rattlesnake
Rattlesnakes use their venom to subdue prey and generally bite only when feeling threatened. Venom is delivered by two hollow fangs that usually lie flat, parallel to the mouth. When the snake strikes, muscles in the jaw rotate the fangs down and venom is pumped in from glands in the head. Once the fangs puncture skin, venom enters the victim's bloodstream, delivering toxins that paralyze and can eventually kill. Even baby rattlers have working fangs and can produce venom.
Hemotoxic and Neurotoxic Venom
Rattlesnake venom is a complex substance consisting of combinatons of toxic proteins known as hemotoxins and neurotoxins. The composition of venom can vary from species to species. Some rattlesnake species produce primarily hemotoxic venom which acts to break down cells and tissues while others have predominantly neurotoxic venom that causes respiratory paralysis, numbness and circulatory problems. The composition of venom can change. Studies suggest that some hemotoxic species have begun to produce neurotoxic venom, with serious implications for snakebite treatment.
Treatment of Rattlesnake Bites
The symptoms of a rattlesnake bite include pain, tingling and bleeding at the site, with subsequent nausea, lightheadedness and difficulty breathing. Medical professionals urge victims to remain calm and to get to a hospital immediately. Treatment consists of injections of antivenin made from the blood of animals injected with small amounts of venom. Bites from snakes carrying neurotoxic venom generally require higher doses of antivenin than those with hemotoxic venom.