Rattlesnakes in New Mexico
At night, when it’s cooler, snakes become active hunting their prey.

For many, summer in New Mexico means months of outdoor adventures. It can also mean more encounters with poisonous snakes, according to the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center, which is offering some prevention and first-aid tips. The poison center, which is run by the University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy, managed 43 cases involving snakebites in 2015, and more than 20 cases so far this year. 

“People should maintain awareness of their surroundings, avoid intentional contact and wear protective clothing when outdoors," says poison center Medical Director Steven A. Seifert, MD. "We also see insect and scorpion stings, and exposures to toxic plants and mushrooms, pesticides and outdoor entertaining hazards.”

Venomous snakes found in New Mexico include rattlesnakes and coral snakes, which inhabit the southwest part of the state. They can be especially dangerous to outdoor workers or people spending more time outside during warmer months. Most snakebites occur when people accidentally step on or come across a snake, frightening it and causing it to bite defensively, Seifert says.

By taking extra precaution in snake-prone environments, many of these bites are preventable by using the following snakebite prevention tips:

Avoid surprise encounters with snakes. Snakes tend to be active at night and in warm weather. They also tend to hide in places where they are not readily visible, so stay away from tall grass, and piles of leaves, rocks and brush. When moving through tall grass or weeds, poke at the ground in front of you with a long stick to scare away snakes. Avoid climbing on rocks or piles of wood where a snake might be hiding. Watch where you step and sit when outdoors. Shine a flashlight on your path when walking outside at night.

Wear loose, long pants and high, thick leather or rubber boots when spending time in places where snakes might be hiding. Wear leather gloves when handling brush and debris.

Never handle a snake, even if you think it is dead or nonvenomous. Recently killed snakes may still bite by reflex. There have even been cases of detached snake heads being able to bite reflexively. 

Bring a partner. If you are planning to spend time in a snake-prone area, it is best not to go alone. If you must go alone, make sure you bring a fully charged mobile telephone, and stay wherever your phone gets a signal.

What to do if bitten by a snake

· Don’t panic – keep still and calm.

· Call the poison center's 24/7 hotline immediately at (800) 222-1222. Poison center experts are specially trained to treat snakebites. If you need immediate medical care, a poison center specialist can tell you where to go and call ahead to ensure you quickly get the care you need. If the person who was bitten is having trouble breathing or losing consciousness, call 911 immediately.

· If you are in a remote location and do not have mobile phone service, ask someone to drive you to the nearest emergency medical facility. Only drive yourself as a last resort. Call the poison center as soon as you have telephone service.

· Keep the part of your body that was bitten straight and at heart-level, unless told otherwise by a poison center specialist.

· Remove all jewelry and tight clothing.

· Wash the bite with soap and water, and cover the bite with a clean, dry dressing if available, and if doing so does not cause delay.

· Try to remember the color and shape of the snake, but don’t move closer to it. Only take a photograph of the snake if you can do so from a safe distance. You do not need to bring the snake with you in order to get the proper medical treatment.

· Note the time the bite happened.

Do NOT . . .

  • pick up, attempt to trap or kill the snake.
  • apply a tourniquet or attempt to restrict blood flow to the affected area.
  • cut the wound.
  • attempt to suck out the venom.
  • apply heat, cold, electricity, or any substances to the wound.
  • drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages or take any drugs or medicines.

An estimated 7,000-8,000 people per year are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S., and about half a dozen people die from bites. In 2015, poison centers across the country managed more than 3,000 cases of snake and other reptile bites during the summer months. Approximately 80 percent of these poison-center calls originated from hospitals and other health care facilities.

For more outdoor poison prevention tips and resources, visit AAPCC’s Outdoor Poison Safety webpage and New Mexico Poison and Drug Information prevention tips.