Denim may thwart rattlesnake venom

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - If you’re planning a trek into the wild, you might want to pack jeans instead of shorts. A new study suggests that a layer of denim offers at least some protection from rattlesnake bites.

A rattlesnake at the Rattlesnake Round-up in Sweetwater, Texas March 12, 2006. REUTERS/STR New

It might seem logical that any barrier between you and a rattlesnake’s fangs would be a good thing. But it has not been clear whether ordinary clothing can actually reduce the amount of venom that penetrates the skin.

In the new study, researchers at Loma Linda University in California looked at whether denim might offer some venom protection.

Drs. Shelton S. Herbert and William K. Hayes used latex gloves filled with saline to simulate a human appendage, then exposed the gloves to bites from small and large southern Pacific rattlesnakes. Some of the latex “limbs” were covered in a layer of denim.

The researchers found that compared with the jeans-less gloves, those covered in denim absorbed about two-thirds less venom from the rattlesnake bites. Instead, a high proportion of the venom “spilled harmlessly” onto the denim, the researchers report in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Worldwide, up to 2 million people are bitten by a venomous snake each year, resulting in as many as 100,000 deaths, Herbert and Hayes note in their report.

In the U.S., rattlesnakes are mostly concentrated in the southwest, but can be found in most states. Bites can cause a range of immediate symptoms including pain, bleeding, swelling and color changes around the area of the bite, breathing difficulty and blurred vision.

Untreated, rattlesnake bites are potentially fatal, so victims should get to a hospital emergency room right away.

While avoiding rattlers and their bites is always preferable, jeans may at least lessen the amount of venom that penetrates the body, according to Herbert and Hayes.

“Wearing long denim pants as an alternative to shorts,” they write, “may provide a simple, low-cost means of reducing the severity of snakebites.”

SOURCE: Annals of Emergency Medicine, December 2009.