Written by Wes Johnson, Springfield News-Leader
The Missouri Department of Conservation said a man who died after being bitten by a snake over the weekend is only the second Missourian to die from a copperhead bite.
The man was camping with his family Saturday at a very remote site along the Current River, according to Carter County Coroner Dennis McSpadden, who handled the case.
"They were getting ready to go to bed when they saw, with their flashlight, a copperhead in their tent," McSpadden said. "While trying to get the snake out the man was bitten on his thumb and within 15 minutes he was unconscious."
The family drove several miles on gravel roads to meet an East Carter ambulance, but the victim later died at a hospital.
Authorities late Tuesday had not yet released the man's name.
McSpadden described the cause of death as "heart failure from venom toxicity."
"It's the first time in my life anybody died from a snake bite in Carter County, that I've heard of," McSpadden said.
MDC herpetologist Jeff Briggler acknowledged the department's Web site - which has details about poisonous snakes in Missouri - incorrectly states "there is no record of a human death caused by a copperhead bite in this state."
"There are only two reported deaths from snakes on record in Missouri that we could find," Briggler said this morning. "One was in 1933 from a timber rattlesnake bite, and there is a death certificate from 1965 on record for a man in the Kansas City area who died from a copperhead bite."
Briggler noted that until the mid 1960s, all Missouri deaths related to venomous contact - including insect stings and snake bites - were lumped together in official records, so it's difficult to identify the exact cause.
The venomous snakes found in Missouri include: the Osage and southern copperhead, cottonmouth, western pygmy rattlesnake, massasauga rattlesnake and timber rattlesnake. The most common venomous snake in Missouri is the copperhead.
Briggler said anyone who is bitten by a snake they cannot identify should immediately go to a medical center to be evaluated.
"The impact of a bite is going to vary tremendously," Briggler said. "Some people are very allergic to snake venom. They will swell up and it can constrict their breathing. There will be pain at the site of the bite as the venom breaks down tissue. It really depends on how much venom was injected and what kind of snake bit you."
He said venomous snakes don't always inject venom.
"About 25 percent of the time they inject no venom. It's just a warning bite that says leave me alone," he said. "Copperhead venom actually is relatively mild, compared to that of a cottonmouth or timber rattlesnake."
Annie Lee, a Family Nurse Practitioner at the OCH Webster County Clinic in Rogersville, said she is an avid camper and river paddler. She said anyone bitten by a venomous snake far from medical services should follow several basic steps.
"First, stay calm, as calm as you can be in that situation, to keep your heart rate down and slow the spread of venom," she said. "Then, and it seems kind of obvious, remove yourself from the area where the snake is."
Lee said an emergency 911 call should be made if there's phone or radio service. But if not, immobilize the bitten arm or leg with a splint. Treat for shock, by keeping the victim warm and most importantly, remove any rings, watches, bracelets or shoes from the affected arm or leg.
"The area will swell quickly, and you don't want a ring or watch to end up cutting off circulation because of the swelling," she said.
"Then, apply a light constricting band of cloth - not a tight tourniquet - above the bite to slow the venom's spread," she said. "You don't want to cut off blood flow or it could cause more damage to the tissue. It should just be tight enough so you can comfortably put two fingers underneath the band."
Lee said ice should not be applied to a bite, nor should cut marks be made over the fang marks, a practice often seen in movies that could make the injury worse.
Get the victim as soon as possible to medical care. She said that with a copperhead bite, medical staff will usually observe the bite area rather than use injections of anti-venom. Some people might have a strong negative reaction to anti-venom medication.