Drought predictive of decrease in snakebites

September 5, 2018 by Tracie White, Stanford University Medical Center
Drought predictive of decrease in snakebites
New research shows that snakebites in California occured more frequently after periods of high rainfall and decreased during times of drought, contrary to long-held beliefs. Credit: Tom Reichner/Shutterstock

Rattlesnake bites, contrary to public opinion, increase after periods of high rainfall, not drought, according to a Stanford-led study that examined 20 years of snakebite history in California.

Grant Lipman, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Stanford Medicine, was running through the brown hills behind the campus a few years ago during a when he came across a 3-foot-long rattlesnake lying by the trail. When a colleague mentioned he'd experienced a similar rattlesnake sighting, Lipman got to thinking.

"I wondered if there are more snakebites during droughts," said Lipman, clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, who routinely treats patients with venomous snakebites.

Lipman launched a study with a team of researchers to investigate the question. What they found defies conventional wisdom: The number of snakebites actually decreases after a drought but goes up after periods of rainy weather. The study also reported that the increase in weather extremes caused by climate change has a direct influence on incidence in California. This could be useful to help guide public health measures, such as determining the best allocation of antivenom supplies, the study said.

Lipman shares lead authorship with Caleb Phillips, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor of computer science at the Univeristy of Colorado-Boulder. The senior author is Derrick Lung, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco. The study was published Sept. 5 in Clinical Toxicology.

Little scientific evidence links drought to an increase in snakebites, and yet everyone seems to believe there's a connection, including providers, since that's what they're taught during training, Lipman said. A quick Internet search of headlines from the popular press quickly confirmed this: "Deadly Snakebites Set to Skyrocket During Record-breaking Drought," reads one in 2018 in the Daily Mail. Another, "Snakes Cross Paths with Humans in Bay Area Due to Drought," was reported ABCNews.com in 2015. The prevailing theory goes that snakes wander further to forage for food during times of drought, plus they are simply more active in warmer weather.

"We set out to prove that, yes, there are more snakebites during high drought time especially since that's what we were taught," Lipman said.

20 years of snakebite data

In fact, what they found was the exact opposite. The researchers collected and examined 20 years of snakebite data from every phone call made to the California Poison Control System from 1997 to 2017. Details included the date and time of the bite; the patient's age and sex; where the bite occurred on the body; call site; treatment; and medical outcomes. Cases were also grouped by the callers' ZIP codes to California's 58 counties.

A total of 5,365 snakebites were reported, all of them from rattlesnakes. Five deaths were reported over the 20-year period. The median age of the patients was 37. They were most likely to be male, and the bites most often occurred at home in the backyard. The majority of bites occurred during the spring or summer and in counties dominated by shrub or scrub growth. Mariposa County topped the list with the most bites at 96 bites per 1 million people. In Santa Clara County, where Stanford is located, there were 4 bites per 1 million people.

"The most common comment I usually hear from snakebite victims in the emergency room is: 'I was just minding my own business,'" Lipman said. "Usually, though, it's the snakes that were minding their own business, having a nice nap. It's people who tend to disturb them."

'More food, more snakes, more snakebites'

The study found that snakebite incidence decreased 10 percent following a drought but increased by 10 percent following high levels of precipitation. The researchers developed their own theory that an increase in rain results in more shrub growth and, with that, an increase in rodents, the snakes' primary food source.

"More food, more snakes, more snakebites," Lipman said. "But that's just our theory."

After accounting for seasonal trends, researchers observed that precipitation was a strong predictor of snakebites. The numbers of bites peaked following the heavy precipitation years of 2006 and 2011, the study found.

"While we were writing this up, we were seeing all these catastrophic weather events around the world," Lipman said. "Massive droughts, powerful hurricanes and floods. We were seeing this global climate change, and we started looking at the recent worst California drought followed by the state's highest precipitation levels on record."

By looking at reports of the wettest and driest years during the 20-year period, researchers saw quite visible comparative trends across the state in all 58 counties. After adjusting for population, the researchers found that the incidence of snakebite fell during two periods of extreme drought between 2002-05 and from 2007-10. From 2015-16, the most severe drought on record in California, the number of snakebites reached their nadir, the study said.

As weather grows increasingly extreme, it grows ever more important to know when to be prepared for perhaps increasingly high incidences of snakebites, Lipman said.

"We can predict a big snakebite season because of prior wet winters and have antivenom in places where there are a lot of hikers or trail runners," Lipman said. "It's important information for people who work and play in California."

Reminding outdoorsy Californians of snakebite-prevention practices is also helpful, particularly when risks of snakebites might be high, Lipman said. Such practices include staying at least two snake-lengths away from rattlesnakes, which can strike fast. Lipman noted that because snakes don't have ears, stomping on the ground works best to scare them away, and that antivenom is effective (but expensive) and needs to be administered quickly to snakebite victims with signs of poisoning.

Explore further: Study indicates El Nino causes more people to be bitten by snakes

More information: Snakebites and climate change in California, 1997–2017, Clinical Toxicology, DOI: 10.1080/15563650.2018.1508690

Related Stories

Study indicates El Nino causes more people to be bitten by snakes

September 14, 2015
(Phys.org)—A team of researchers with members from Taiwan, Japan and Costa Rica has found a link between El Nino cycles and the number of people bitten by snakes in Costa Rica. In their paper published in the journal Science ...

Snakebites a rising danger for U.S. children

October 20, 2016
(HealthDay)—More than 1,300 U.S. kids suffer snakebites each year on average, with one in four attacks occurring in Florida and Texas, a new study reveals.

Around two queries a week to UK poisons service concern... snakebites

December 19, 2012
Snakebite injuries account for around two phone queries every week to the UK National Poisons Information Service, indicates an audit published online in Emergency Medicine Journal.

Snakebites cost Sri Lanka more than $10 million

July 6, 2017
Snakebites are a major public health problem in many rural communities around the world, often requiring medical care and affecting victims' ability to work. Every year, snakebites cost the Sri Lankan government more than ...

Recommended for you

Dietary fat is good? Dietary fat is bad? Coming to consensus

November 15, 2018
Which is better, a low-fat/high-carbohydrate diet or a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet—or is it the type of fat that matters? In a new paper featured on the cover of Science magazine's special issue on nutrition, researchers ...

Why we shouldn't like coffee, but we do

November 15, 2018
Why do we like the bitter taste of coffee? Bitterness evolved as a natural warning system to protect the body from harmful substances. By evolutionary logic, we should want to spit it out.

Colder, darker climates increase alcohol consumption and liver disease

November 14, 2018
Where you live could influence how much you drink. According to new research from the University of Pittsburgh Division of Gastroenterology, people living in colder regions with less sunlight drink more alcohol than their ...

Survey reveals how we use music as a possible sleep aid

November 14, 2018
Many individuals use music in the hope that it fights sleep difficulties, according to a study published November 14 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Tabitha Trahan of the University of Sheffield, UK, and colleagues. ...

Want to cut down on your meds? Your pharmacist can help.

November 14, 2018
Pharmacists are pivotal in the process of deprescribing risky medications in seniors, leading many to stop taking unnecessary sleeping pills, anti-inflammatories and other drugs, a new Canadian study has found.

No accounting for these tastes: Artificial flavors a mystery

November 13, 2018
Six artificial flavors are being ordered out of the food supply in a dispute over their safety, but good luck to anyone who wants to know which cookies, candies or drinks they're in.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.