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ER or Not: Bit By a Non-Poisonous Snake

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ER or Not: Bit By a Non-Poisonous Snake

Jul 15, 2016

You get bit by a non-venomous garter snake in your garden. It might be scary, but you know there isn’t venom in your veins. Should you go to the ER? Dr. Troy Madsen explains why a dog bite is actually more dangerous than one from a non-poisonous snake, but why you might want to go to the emergency room if you are behind on your tetanus booster.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: You get bitten by a non-poisonous snake, ER or not? That's next on The Scope.

Announcer: Is it bad enough to go to the emergency room? Or isn't it? You're listening to "ER or Not" on The Scope.

Interviewer: It's the game where you get to decide whether or not you would go to the ER and then we find out the correct answer from Dr. Troy Madsen, emergency room physician at University of Utah Health Care. ER or not today, you are bitten by a non-poisonous snake. Is that a reason to go to the ER?

Dr. Madsen: Non-poisonous snakes, first of all, you want to know that it is a non-poisonous snake. So in Utah, we're thinking primarily about rattlesnakes being the poisonous snake here of concern. So if you know it's not a rattlesnake, if it's a little garden snake that was in your yard, you picked it up, it bit your finger, not necessarily a reason to go to the ER.

Interviewer: Okay.

Dr. Madsen: But there is kind of one little caveat here, with this. With any bite, and we always think about it with snakebites, you have to think about tetanus. Something we have to think about with any laceration, anything like that. So if you can tell yourself, "Okay. I know I had a tetanus booster. It's been within the last 10 years. I'm covered there." In terms of the bite itself, everything's moving okay, it's not like it affected any tendons, nerves, nothing like that, it's not a real deep bite, it's probably something you can just wash out at home and not go to the ER.

Interviewer: What about infection? Is that a worry in a snakebite as well? I know it's a worry with a lot of other bites.

Dr. Madsen: It is for a lot of other bites. And again, certainly, infection is something that you think about with snakebites. But if someone comes to the ER, they've got a couple little fang marks on their finger from a snakebite, and it looks clean, it's not like a real dirty wound where they were working in the garden and their hands were real dirty and then the snakebite pushed a bunch of dirt into their finger, I'm not really going to start that person on an antibiotic for that.

Interviewer: Fascinating. So like getting bit by a dog, more worry of infection than getting bitten by a snake?

Dr. Madsen: It is. And for me, it is just because the dog bites are usually deeper. There's usually more tissue involved. I don't know. I can't say I have ever looked to see what the germ content of a dog's mouth versus a snake's mouth is.

Interviewer: There's somebody out there that probably knows.

Dr. Madsen: There probably is, but for me, it's more just the fact that the dog bites are usually a much larger area, usually deeper, usually a lot more tissue involved.

Interviewer: Okay.

Dr. Madsen: That's why with dog bites, I am usually thinking more starting antibiotics to prevent an infection where with snakebites, typically, not such a concern, but something you have to watch out for to make sure nothing develops.

Interviewer: All right. So a non-poisonous snake bite, no need to go to the ER as long as you are sure you've had that tetanus booster within the past 10 years.

Dr. Madsen: Exactly.

Interviewer: Wash it out and just watch it, at that point.

Dr. Madsen: Yeah, wash it out. You can use some antibiotic ointment on it, keep an eye on it, make sure it doesn't develop an infection.

Interviewer: And if you have not had that tetanus shot, urgent care? Can they give you...

Dr. Madsen: Urgent care is fine, yep. You get in to see your doctor within the next day or two, that's fine as well.

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