Q: While on a camping trip in Western Maryland, we were surprised by a large snake lying across the trail. We did not know if the snake was poisonous, and no one was bitten, but we realized that we did not know whether there are poisonous snakes in Maryland or what to do in case of a snakebite.
A: Two types of poisonous snakes are found in Maryland: the timber rattlesnake in the western third of the state and in a small area north of Baltimore, and the copperhead found throughout the state except in the central part of the Eastern Shore. Copperheads even live within cities and surrounding suburbs.
The timber rattlesnake is the most dangerous rattlesnake in theeastern United States. In Maryland, copperheads are more common than rattlesnakes and are responsible for more snakebites. Snakebites occur most frequently in July and August.
The most important thing to do for a snakebite is to get the victim to a medical facility as rapidly as possible. En route, the bite area should be kept steady and in a position below the heart so as to slow the absorption and spread of venom.
Although there is still some controversy about it, most snakebite experts discourage the use of tourniquets coupled with incision and suction as first-aid measures. When used by inexperienced people, these can cause more problems.
The pillar of medical treatment for snakebite is intravenous injection of antivenin to neutralize the venom. If medical attention is given within two hours of a bite, the victim has an excellent chance of full recovery.
Of course, it is better to prevent a snakebite than to treat it. Hikers should avoid caves and rocky crevices, places frequented by snakes. In such areas, wear boots, gloves, trousers and long-sleeved shirts for protection. And never try to awaken or alarm a snake on the trail.
*Dr. Margolis is professor of medicine and biological chemistry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and associate dean for academic affairs at the school.