Kiss of Death: More Stupid Snake Behavior*

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(*”Stupid” refers the behavior of humans when in the presence of snakes, not the behavior of the snakes themselves, which appear to be the more reasonably behaving species in these encounters.)

As my regular readers know, I have carved out a nice little beat for myself–writing about the ill-advised things that people do when snakes and high-blood alcohol levels meet. I am pleased to announce that I have a new dispatch for you.

Recently, I have discovered a delightful subset of medical case studies–those involving snake bites to the mouth and face. Now, as you might imagine, it’s difficult to get a snake bite to the head while simply minding your own business. And so, I decided that it was my journalistic duty to dig around and find out just what someone has to do to get bitten by a snake in the face.

I began with “Common adder bite to the tongue causing life threatening toxicity from airway compromise,” a paper published in 2010 in the journal Clinical Toxicity.

A 24-year-old man with a medical history of mild asthma but otherwise healthy was staying in a house by the ocean for the weekend with some friends. It was early spring time (March), and during a walk on the beach, they found a Common European Adder (Vipera berus) lying in the dunes. Identification of the adder was done by a friend who was an amateur collector. The adder was captured in a box and brought back to the house.

So how did things go awry? I shall merely quote the paper:

In the evening, under heavy influence of alcohol, the man tried to kiss the adder, which bit him on the tongue.

Ah, yes. Obviously.

The man survived his ordeal, but the bite he got was a dangerous one. Not only did he have the toxic venom to worry about, but also the swelling. As his tongue blew up, it began to block his airway, and the man required six days of mechanical ventilation at the hospital. Eventually he recovered fully.

Apparently, however, alcohol is not required to make bad decisions around reptiles. I also unearthed a 1987 paper called, “Life-Threatening Airway Obstruction From Rattlesnake Bite to the Tongue.” Here’s what happened:

A 41-year-old man was playing with his pet Western Diamondback rattlesnake (C atrox). A friend held the snake close to the patient’s face while the patient mimicked the tongue protrusions of the reptile.

Let’s pause for a second before moving on. So the guy “mimicked the tongue protrusions” of the snake. In other words, while his friend held a rattlesnake up to his face, the man taunted his pet by sticking his own tongue out at it. Any bets on how this ended?

Seizing the opportunity, the rattlesnake quickly bit him on the dorsal surface of the tongue. While the fangs were still in place, the friend yanked the snake out of the patient’s mouth.

Yikes. His tongue, unsurprisingly, began to swell immediately, blocking his airway and making breathing difficult. It took ten vials of anti-venom, supplemental oxygen, and more than five days in the hospital for him to recover.

This particular paper–which makes no mention of alcohol–got me thinking that perhaps I should lengthen my list of risk factors for dangerous snake bites. It now reads:

1. Intoxication.
2. A Y chromosome.

A prize to any reader who can find for me a case report of a woman being bitten after behaving foolishly around a venomous snake! References: Hoegberg, L., Jessen, C., Lambertsen, K., & Stensballe, J. (2010). Common adder bite to the tongue causing life threatening toxicity from airway compromise Clinical Toxicology, 48 (4), 397-398 DOI: 10.3109/15563651003657063

Gerkin, R., Sergent, K., Curry, S., Vance, M., Nielsen, D., & Kazan, A. (1987). Life-threatening airway obstruction from rattlesnake bite to the tongue Annals of Emergency Medicine, 16 (7), 813-816 DOI: 10.1016/S0196-0644(87)80584-X

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