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North Carolina's venomous snakebite numbers are up from previous record year

A copperhead snake sits in a pile of brown mud and green leaves
Ryan Hagerty
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
As of early June, 268 venomous snakebites have been reported this year. There were 259 reported in 2020 around the same time, according to NC Poison Control officials. The copperhead is NC's most abundant venomous snake species.

This season's warm weather means cold-blooded snakes are active. The North Carolina Poison Control said the number of venomous snakebites reported to the state have surpassed where they were this time in 2020, the state's largest year.

As of early June, 268 venomous snakebites have been reported this year. There were 259 reported in 2020 around the same time, according to NC Poison Control officials.

Wildlife biologist Falyn Owens — of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission — said snakes get active when temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. That spans summertime but can even include warm winter days.

North Carolina has nearly 40 species of snakes. Only six are venomous.

Of those six, Owens said the copperhead is the one to know. It's the state's most abundant venomous snake species, with NC Wildlife estimating that copperheads account for around 90% of venomous snakebites in North Carolina.

Fortunately, Owens said, copperheads can be easily identified by their distinctive pattern.

A juvenile copperhead sits curled up on a mossy green patch
Peter Pattavina
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
According to wildlife biologist Falyn Owens, copperheads can be identified by their Hershey's Kisses-like pattern, consisting of dark upright triangles in a row.

“I like to think of it as a line of chocolate Hershey kisses sitting in a row,” Owens said. “If you look at it from the side, it has a darker pattern of upright triangles — those are the Hershey's Kisses — on a paler background.”

Copperheads like areas with rodents and thick ground cover, according to Owens, like tall grass or ivy. That means they’re common in residential areas.

According to the NC Poison Control, about 20% of the country’s reported copperhead bites can be attributed to North Carolina, making it one of the top states for copperhead bites.

However, Owens emphasized that snakes don't want to bite. They usually only bite people as a form of self-defense, she said.

“The good news is getting bitten by a snake is mostly avoidable,” Owens said. “A lot of snakebites happen because people are grabbing them, trying to pick them up, trying to kill them. So, just leaving a snake alone, being aware that a snake might be around — seeing a snake and giving it space is the best possible way to avoid snakebites.”

She added, “They don't mean people harm.”

Some hospitals in the Triangle are seeing dozens of patients for snake-related bites. A WakeMed spokesperson said that since April, its emergency room has seen at least 26 patients for snakebites, with such visits often spiking in July each year.

UNC Health officials said it has treated about 20 people using anti-venom for copperhead bites this year.

NC Poison Control has resources for poison prevention, stating that if bitten, people should avoid actions such as sucking out the venom, icing the affected area, or applying a tourniquet. NC Poison Control has the following recommendations for snakebites:

  • Wash the area with warm soapy water.
  • Remove all restrictive jewelry.
  • Keep the bitten area still and raise it to heart level.

Snakebite victims who have chest pain, difficulty breathing, face swelling, or loss of consciousness should call 911 immediately.

NC Poison Control can be reached at 1-800-222-1222 for snakebite-related questions or treatment advice.

Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.
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