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Snake Bites Learning Center

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Snake Bites

What are snake bites?

About 7,000 venomous snake bite cases are reported every year in the United States. A bite from a venomous snake is rarely deadly — about 6 fatalities are reported every year — but it should always be treated as a medical emergency. Even a bite from a harmless snake can be serious, leading to an allergic reaction or an infection. Venomous snake bites can produce an array of symptoms, including localized pain and swelling, convulsions, nausea, and even paralysis.

First aid steps you can take after a snake bite occurs include cleaning the wound, remaining calm, and immobilizing the affected area. However, it’s essential to get to a medical facility immediately for emergency treatment. If treated in time, the outlook for recovery is good.

Identifying venomous snakes

If you are unfamiliar with the different types of snakes and unable to distinguish between venomous and non-venomous ones, it can be difficult to know how to respond in the event of a bite. Always treat a snake bite as if it’s venomous.

While most snakes in the U.S. are not venomous, several types do contain venom. In the U.S., all of the venomous snakes, except for the coral snake, are pit vipers. Pit vipers are distinguishable by a noticeable depression between the eye and nostril. This pit is the heat-sensing area for the snake. While all pit vipers have a triangular head, not all snakes with a triangular head are venomous.

If you or someone you are with has been bitten by a snake, you will know immediately. It’s possible, though, for the bite to happen quickly and for the snake to disappear.

To identify a snake bite, consider the following general symptoms:

  • two puncture wounds
  • swelling and redness around the wounds
  • pain at the bite site
  • difficulty breathing
  • vomiting and nausea
  • blurred vision
  • sweating and salivating
  • numbness in the face and limbs

Some venomous snakes also cause symptoms specific to their type.

Rattlesnakes

Rattlesnakes are easily identifiable. They have rings at the end of their tails that shake when they feel threatened. This makes a rattling sound and is a warning for you to back away. Rattlesnakes are the largest of the venomous snakes and account for many of the venomous bites in the U.S. each year. These snakes can be found in nearly any habitat across the country. They like open areas where they can rest in the sun such as rocks, and logs.

Symptoms

Symptoms specific to rattlesnake bites are immediate and include:

  • severe pain
  • drooping eyelids
  • low blood pressure
  • thirst
  • tiredness or muscle weakness

Water moccasins or cottonmouths

The water moccasin is another type of pit viper. This snake is also known as a cottonmouth, because the inside of its mouth is lined with a white, cottony material. The water moccasin’s average size is between 50 to 55 inches. Adults have dark tan to black skin with faint dark brown or black crossbands. Young snakes have brown or orange crossbands with a yellow tail. These snakes are found in the southeastern states, usually in or near water. They don’t scare easily, and will defend themselves should they feel threatened.

Symptoms

Water moccasin bites share symptoms with copperhead bites. Specific symptoms include:

  • immediate pain and symptoms
  • change in skin color
  • shock
  • low blood pressure
  • weakness

Copperheads

Copperheads are reddish or gold in color with hourglass-shaped bands. This snake is typically 18 to 36 inches in length. Copperheads are mostly found in forests, swamps, rocky areas, and rivers in the eastern states (as far as Texas). They are not aggressive. Most copperhead bites occur if you accidentally step on or near one.

Symptoms

Copperhead snake bites share symptoms with water moccasin snake bites. Symptoms can include:

  • immediate pain and symptoms
  • change in skin color
  • shock
  • low blood pressure
  • weakness

Coral snakes

Coral snakes have black, yellow, and red banding and are often confused with non-venomous king snakes. You can distinguish a coral snake by the fact that the red bands touch the yellow bands. They live in the woods, marshes, and sandy areas of the South. Coral snakes typically hide underground and in leaf piles.

Symptoms

Symptoms specific to coral snake bites include:

  • pain that is not immediate
  • symptoms that set in hours after the bite
  • convulsions
  • drooping eyelids
  • change in skin color
  • stomach pain
  • difficulty swallowing
  • headache
  • shock
  • paralysis

First aid for snake bites

Should you be bitten by a snake, it’s essential to get emergency treatment as quickly as possible. However, there are some tips that you should also keep in mind:

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Note the time of the bite.
  • Keep calm and still as movement can cause the venom to travel more quickly through the body.
  • Remove constricting clothing or jewelry because the area surrounding the bite will likely swell.
  • Don’t allow the victim to walk. Carry or transport them by vehicle.
  • Do not kill or handle the snake. Take a picture if you can but don’t waste time hunting it down.

First aid myths

There are also several outdated first aid techniques that are now believed to be unhelpful or even harmful: 

  • Do not use a tourniquet.
  • Do not cut into the snake bite.
  • Do not use a cold compress on the bite.
  • Do not give the person any medications unless directed by a doctor.
  • Do not raise the area of the bite above the victim’s heart.
  • Do not attempt to suck the venom out by mouth.
  • Do not use a pump suction device. These devices were formerly recommended for pumping out snake venom, but it's now believed that they are more likely to do harm than good.

Treatment for snake bites

The most important thing to do for a snake bite is to get emergency medical help as soon as possible. A doctor will evaluate the victim to decide on a specific course of treatment. In some cases, a bite from a venomous snake is not life-threatening. The severity depends on the location of the bite and the age and health of the victim. If the bite is not serious, the doctor may simply clean the wound and give the victim a tetanus vaccine.

If the situation is life threatening, the doctor may administer antivenom. This is a substance created with snake venom to counter the snake bite symptoms. It’s injected into the victim. The sooner the antivenom is used, the more effective it will be.

Outlook for a snake bite

The outlook for a person with a snake bite is highly variable. For a non-venomous snake bite, the outlook is excellent if the wound is cleaned and treated promptly. For a venomous bite, the outlook is good if the victim receives emergency care very soon after the bite has occurred. Healthy adults with shallow bites have a better outlook than children and those with weakened immune systems who have received deep bites.

Prevention of snake bites

Snake bites can be prevented in many cases. It’s best to refrain from approaching or handling snakes in the wild. Avoid typical places where snakes like to hide, such as patches of tall grass and piled leaves, and rock and woodpiles. If you encounter a snake, give it space to retreat and let it take cover. It’s in the snake’s nature to avoid interaction.

When working outside where snakes may be present, wear tall boots, long pants, and leather gloves. Avoid working outside during the night and in warmer weather, which is when snakes are most active.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Mary Ellen Ellis
Published on Aug 05, 2014
Medically reviewed on Aug 25, 2016 by [Ljava.lang.Object;@2b1c3127

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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