Allergic reaction to snake venom caused death

photo A copperhead snake looks up at the Nature Museum in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Wade Westbrook had experience handling snakes and even had been bitten by a copperhead before, friends say.

But that did not make him immune to a major allergic reaction to a copperhead's venom that East Ridge police say led to the 26-year-old's death Saturday night.

Anaphylactic shock -- a severe allergic reaction to the venom - was listed as the cause of death on Westbrook's death certificate, according to Officer Erik Hopkins, spokesman for the East Ridge Police Department.

"With a pit viper like a copperhead, you do not build up an immunity to the snakebite. On the contrary, the more you encounter the venom, the more sensitive you become to it," said Dr. Whit Gibbons, emeritus ecology professor at the University of Georgia.

Copperheads have the mildest venom of any venomous snake in the Southeast, Gibbons said, and bites are "rarely - if ever - fatal."

Instead of succumbing to the venom itself, Westbrook's immune system most likely overreacted to it, explained Dr. Curt Chaffin, an allergist with Asthma Immunology & Allergy in Chattanooga.

"Usually when you're allergic to something, you're not going to have a reaction the first time you encounter it. It's later, after you develop antibodies," Chaffin said. "How many people have been bitten twice by a copperhead? Not many. So an allergic reaction is something people may not have been thinking about when they were first trying to treat him."

A police report said Westbrook's friend - listed only as "Chris" - brought the copperhead over so Westbrook, who kept several exotic snakes in his home, could determine the snake's sex. Westbrook was holding the copperhead when it bit him on his right forearm.

Chris and Westbrook's wife, Stephanie, told police they waited about 10 minutes to call for help because her husband had no serious difficulties when bitten by a copperhead before, the report stated.

Westbrook "tried to extract the venom with a devenomization tool" before vomiting and collapsing on the floor, the report said, and he was unresponsive when police arrived.

"At that point, their priority was to revive him," said Hopkins. "In that moment, they couldn't know whether he was having a toxic reaction to the venom or an allergic reaction of some kind."

An autopsy will not be performed because the snakebite was a witnessed event and the cause of death is not in question, Hopkins said.

Investigators still are working to determine where the copperhead came from, and to outline the exact chain of events that led to Westbrook's death, Hopkins said.

On Monday, Stephanie Westbrook's Facebook page read: "Just pray for me and my family. ... Wade was a wonderful father, husband and son. He will be seriously missed. I love you Wade and I always will."

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