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Copperhead Bites Dangerous, Not Deadly

When a four-year-old girl was bitten by a venemous copper head snake near Great Falls last month, she was one of only a few people to be bitten by venemous snakes each year in Maryland. Copperheads, one of only two venemous snakes in Maryland, are listed among Maryland’s “common” snakes by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But copperhead bites in this area are so rare, a local hospital doesn’t stock the antivenom.

Hanna Eskeland, a 4-year-old girl from Chevy Chase, was bitten by a copperhead in C&O Canal National Park near Great Falls on Sunday, June 16.

Hanna was taken to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda by ambulance, then to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. by helicopter. At Children’s, Hanna received an anti-venom treatment flown in from Manassas, Va. and was released after 36 hours.

Experts say copperheads pose little danger to a healthy adult, and with proper caution, Potomac residents have little to fear from the snake.

A TRIANGULAR HEAD is one of the copperhead’s identifying features, one they share with other pit vipers, a family of venomous snakes that include rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. Copperheads have pink-to-orange-brown skin with a pattern of dark hourglass-shaped bands. The crossbands tend to be dark brown to reddish, according to “Poisonous Snakes of the World,” a guide by the U.S. Navy Department’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.

“They are not particularly common; they are around,” said Marian Stover, a naturalist at Locust Grove Nature Center, who says she has seen only one copperhead in seven years working at Locust Grove.

“There’s not that many, and they tend to stay in their own habitat.”

Such habitat includes remote, rocky wooded areas where the copperheads are likely to find rodents or small warm-blooded animals to eat, according to Eugene Deems and Duane Pursley on the Website of the Wildlife and Heritage Division of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

THE BITE Hanna Eskeland suffered was something of an anomaly in the area. While copperheads are feared for their venom, they tend to strike only when directly threatened or inadvertently stepped upon.

“They’re frequently rather shy,” said Stover. “They have a tendency to lie still and hope you’ll go away. … You can always find an aggressive individual, though.”

“You do see them out there,” said Steve DeLanoy, a member of the C&O Canal Volunteer Bike Patrol. “But for the most part, the copperhead is not an aggressive snake.”

“The problem is their camouflage,” said Anthony Wisler of Cincinnati, Ohio, who keeps several copperheads as pets. “That seems to be why most bites happen. You don’t know they’re there until you’ve stepped on one.”

Venomous snakes bite an average of two to six people a year in Maryland, according to the Maryland Poison Control Center.

Wisler said he has never been bitten by his pet copperheads.

“They’ve never struck, thank God,” said Wisler. “They stay on the end of that hook.”

Hikers can take several precautions to reduce the likelihood of being bitten.

“Don’t put your hands where you can’t see,” said Stover. “If you know you’re going through brush… it’s advisable to wear boots and a pair of jeans to protect the ankles.”

“IF YOU’RE BITTEN the thing to do is call 911,” said Stover. “They do not advise that you cut the area of the bite and suck the venom out.”

Hospitals are numerous enough in Montgomery County that a snakebite victim can reach one in time for adequate treatment.

When Hanna Eskeland was bitten, the antivenom used to treat her was flown from Prince William Hospital in Manassas, Va. to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where Hanna was being treated.

“We do see snakebites on occasion, because we do have a lot of rural area around us, but I wouldn’t say it’s common,” said Donna Ballou, director of public relations at Prince William Hospital. “We do keep some [antivenom] on hand, but we don’t have a huge supply.”

Suburban Hospital spokesperson Ronna Borenstein said that the hospital does not carry a supply of antivenom because of the rarity of snakebite cases they treat.

NOT ONLY ARE THEIR BITES rare, but copperheads’ venom, while harmful, is unlikely to be lethal to an adult.

“It would be practically unheard of to be life-threatening,” said Stover.

DeLanoy agreed that a copperhead bite for an adult is unlikely to be fatal, but “you’re going to get sick as a dog.”

But poisonous snake bites are more dangerous for children.

“Copperhead bites are not fatal,” according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But “venomous snake bites are more serious in children, since the ability of a body to absorb venom without fatal results varies with the person’s weight or volume.”

There is more to fear from the bite of a timber rattlesnake, Maryland’s other venomous snake. The timber rattler has caused human fatalities, but prefers the state’s more mountainous areas.