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101 Critical Days: Some dangers come in small packages

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- This prairie rattlesnake was found June 27 at the skate park in the housing area here. The snake, which preys on prairie dogs and other rodents, is poisonous and blends in well with its natural surroundings. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Stephen Burroughs)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- This prairie rattlesnake was found June 27 at the skate park in the housing area here. The snake, which preys on prairie dogs and other rodents, is poisonous and blends in well with its natural surroundings. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Stephen Burroughs)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Dangers around your house don't always flash warning signs. Some of the biggest dangers come in creepy, crawly and camouflaged packages.

Brown recluse spiders, while not quite as dangerous as the infamous black widow, can threaten life or limb if its bites are left untreated. Brown recluses live in areas that are normally undisturbed, such as dark spaces, wood piles and dark areas in attics and sheds.

The brown recluse's bite is non-healing and kills tissue around the bitten area. The actual bite causes little pain, if any. Hours later, victims start develop symptoms that get progressively worse. Within a few days, the bite area enlarges and kills tissue in a wide area around it.

There is no anti-venom for a brown recluse's bite: the wound must be soaked in antiseptic and possibly antibiotics. Surgery may be required to cut out the dead tissue, depending on how far the bite has progressed.

The good news is that brown recluse spiders are not aggressive, said Dr. Bob Sargent, natural resources manager at Robins Air Force Base, Ga.

"When daylight comes ... they may take refuge in a pile of clothes on the floor. When someone goes to put the clothes on and their skin comes in contact with the spider, they get bitten," Dr. Sargent said. "They don't actively seek out people to bite."

Recluse spiders are not the only dangerous creepy crawlers, prairie rattlesnakes are also out this time of year.

Prairie rattlesnakes are non-aggressive, and poisonous. Ranging in length from 3 to 5 feet, they have brownish or greenish-brown scales. The snakes inhabit fields, pine habitats and sandy areas, and they are active at night on or near paved roads. They prey mostly on prairie dogs and other small rodents.

A venomous snake's bite is extremely painful and swells rapidly. Symptoms of a snake bite may include skin discoloration, weakness, sweating, faintness, nausea and tingling or numbness in the tongue, mouth or scalp. Bite victims should be taken to the hospital as soon as possible.

The Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence at Brooks City-Base, Texas, recommends against applying tourniquets or snakebite kits. Instead, anyone applying first aid to a snake bite should immobilize the bitten area and keep it at or below heart level to slow the spread of poison throughout the body.

Situational awareness is the first and most important element to prevent being bitten, said Master Sgt. Michael Elliot, a Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape specialist for the 27th Fighter Wing at Cannon AFB, N.M.

"You need to know what's out there that can hurt somebody, regardless of the environment," Sergeant Elliot recommended.

Be alert for snakes or other wildlife when you spend time hiking, gardening or doing other outdoor activities in habitats a prairie rattler or brown recluse might call home. Look carefully before you reach into dark areas, brush or other piles of material that haven't been moved for a while.

Parents should make sure their children are aware of their surroundings.

"For a child, (poisonous bites) are more life-threatening," Sergeant Elliot said. Children are a concern because they are smaller and therefore more vulnerable to the effects of poison—a bite that sickens an adult, might kill a child.

Finally, don't panic. The prairie rattler and brown recluse bite not because they are naturally vicious but because they are afraid. By staying calm and giving them space, you can avoid a trip to the hospital.

For more information about these or other potentially hazardous creepy crawlers, contact your base civil engineer environmental experts.