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Summer presents danger of poisonous snakebite in Pennsylvania

| Sunday, Aug. 11, 2013, 11:55 p.m.

Tim Hanna's “bee sting” turned out to be something out of the ordinary.

Hanna, 17, of Penn Township, a Boy Scout in Troop 257 from Irwin, was kayaking on Yough Dam as part of summer camp in July. His group stopped on shore for lunch and a restroom break.

On the way back to his boat, Hanna felt something zap his ankle.

“Oh, it hurt,” he said. “There was a lot of burning and a lot of pain. It felt kind of hot.”

Thinking a bee, wasp or hornet had tagged him, he kept boating. On the following afternoon, with his foot swelling, he went to an urgent care center. The staff diagnosed cellulitis, a skin infection.

The next morning, his swollen ankle blistered, and he developed a fever. In a hospital emergency room, doctors determined a timber rattlesnake had bitten him.

“Thanks to the fact that the snake needed dental work, he only had one fang penetrate him,” joked his mother, Helga Hanna. “They put him on strong antibiotics for 10 days, and that did the trick.”

Though venomous snakebites are rare in Western Pennsylvania, Tanya Jeffries of Redstone Township was bitten a week ago by a copperhead along the Yough River Trail in Perry Township.

Yet this year is fairly typical for the number of snakebites, officials said — perhaps better, because of the wet summer.

Pennsylvania is home to 22 species of snake, three of them venomous.

Northern copperheads, which range in length from 26 to 42 inches, are most common across the southern two-thirds of the state.

Timber rattlesnakes are the largest, capable of reaching 55 inches long. They've been recorded in 53 of the state's 67 counties, but are most common in the north-central region and on Western Pennsylvania's mountain ridges.

Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, 24 to 36 inches long, are considered a state-endangered species. They inhabit a half-dozen Western Pennsylvania counties.

Neither the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, responsible for managing snakes, nor the state Department of Health tracks snakebites. But calls to the commission's office in Somerset indicate this is a typical year, office manager Tom Qualters said.

“We've gotten a lot of snake calls overall, but not many have been about poisonous ones,” he said.

Copperheads and rattlesnakes live around rocky outcrops and on ridges where they rarely encounter people. Only in especially dry years, when they follow prey out of the hills in search of water, do they come into contact with many people, Qualters said.

Even then, they rarely bite.

“I've been doing this for 20 years. And in all that time, I can say I've only ever taken care of one or two bites,” said Bruce MacLeod, medical director of the West Penn Hospital emergency department. “It's just not that common.”

A bite often brings swelling, redness, bruising, weakness, confusion and nausea, he said. Skin and tissue around the bite area can die.

“One of the big hallmarks of a venomous snakebite is a lot of pain. These things are very painful,” MacLeod said.

Fatalities are almost unheard of, though, given the availability of anti-venom.

Snakebites do provide great personal story material.

“When they first told me I'd been bitten by a rattlesnake, I was shocked and surprised. I mean, who expects to get bitten by a rattlesnake?” Hanna said.

“But then I thought, this is actually kind of cool, assuming it doesn't get serious and I lose a leg. It will definitely be something to talk about when I go away to college.”

Bob Frye is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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