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Experts: At best, snakebite kits don’t work; at worst, they delay care

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TUCSON – For those heading into rattlesnake territory, a snakebite kit – often featuring an illustration of a viper ready to strike – may seem to offer a measure of safety.

But experts say treating a bite by cutting tissue, using a suction cup in hopes of drawing out venom with the blood and tying a cord in hopes of keeping the venom out of the lymphatic system can do more harm than good.

“If you’re snakebit and you’re relying on this to save your life, you’re wasting your time completely,” said Roger Repp, a former president of the Tucson Herpetological Society. “Why not put leeches on the wound while you’re at it?”

Repp recalled being bitten on his right index finger by a rock rattlesnake while conducting research in the Huachuca Mountains of northwestern Arizona.

“The swelling went all the way up my arm into my chest, and I had an arm like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he said. “That is still considered a mild bite compared to some of what people face.”

Repp and others said the best response to a rattlesnake bite is seeking medical help immediately.

F. Mazda Shirazi, a University of Arizona associate professor and medical director at the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, said people who use snakebite kits sometimes wind up seeking medical attention too late.

“The last thing that we want is an undertreated snake bite which, then, will cause bleeding or can have problems with loss of limb,” he said. “That can actually be costlier to the system.”

Snakebite cases are more common among young adult men, gardeners, golfers, cable layers and hikers who may mistake snakes for cords or toys. Usually people will know a rattlesnake is there able be able to give it a wide berth, Shirazi said.

He said it’s a common misunderstanding that a rattlesnake shakes its rattle before striking. In fact, it can depend on the snake.

“Don’t be expecting a warning before a bite,” he said.

Ken Morgan, a Phoenix Zoo reptile expert, said people shouldn’t buy any of the snakebite kits available.

“The concern would be whether you’re doing anything more harmful and you’re delaying reaching medical help,” he said.