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Snakebites

According to the CDC, about 8,000 snakebites happen in the U.S. each year. Even a bite from a "harmless" snake can cause infection or allergic reaction in some people. For your safety, treat all snakebites as if they are venomous. Go to a hospital emergency room as quickly as possible. This is vital if you aren't sure of the exact type of snake that bit you. With the correct treatment (antivenin), you can prevent severe illness or death. Antivenin, also called antivenom, is a treatment specific to the venom of a particular animal or insect.

If you often spend time in wilderness areas, camp, hike, picnic, or live in snake-inhabited areas, learn the possible dangers posed by venomous snakes. You should:

  • Know how to identify venomous snakes

  • Be able to get to medical help in case of emergency

  • Be aware that snakes are more active during warmer months

What snakes are venomous?

The most common venomous snakebites are caused by:

  • Pit vipers. These include rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouth (water moccasin) snakes. These snakes have a venom that destroys tissue (skin and muscle) and cause problems with your blood

  • Coral snakes. These snakes have a venom that that affects your nerves and can cause paralysis.

Rattlesnake bites cause most of the venomous bites in the U.S. Coral snakes and imported exotic snakes cause a much smaller number of snakebites.

What are the symptoms of venomous bites?

Different snakes have different types of venom and symptoms may differ. The most common symptoms of venomous snakebites include: 

  • Bloody wound discharge

  • A lot of bleeding and trouble with clotting of blood 

  • Fang marks in the skin and swelling at the site of the bite

  • Severe pain at the bite site

  • Discoloration, such as redness and bruising 

  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the area affected

  • Diarrhea

  • Burning

  • Convulsions

  • Fainting

  • Dizziness

  • Weakness

  • Blurred vision

  • A lot of sweating

  • Fever

  • Increased thirst

  • Loss of muscle coordination

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Numbness and tingling, especially in the mouth

  • Rapid pulse

  • Altered mental state

  • Shock

  • Paralysis

  • Breathing trouble

The symptoms of a venomous snakebite may look like other health conditions or problems. See a healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Treatment for snakebites

Call for emergency help right away if you have been bitten by a snake. Responding quickly in this type of emergency is crucial. While waiting for emergency help:

  • Wash the bite with soap and water.

  • Keep the bitten area still and lower than your heart.

  • Cover the area with a clean, cool compress or a moist dressing to ease swelling and discomfort. If a coral snake bit you, apply some firm pressure directly over the wound with a clean cloth and your hand.

  • Watch your breathing and heart rate.

  • Remove all rings, watches, and constrictive clothing, in case of swelling.

  • Note the time of the bite so that it can be reported to an emergency room healthcare provider if needed.

  • If possible, draw a circle around the affected area and mark the time of the bite and the initial reaction. If you are able, redraw the circle around the site of injury over time.

  • It is helpful to remember what the snake looks like, its size, and the type of snake if you know it, in order to tell the emergency room staff.

  • Don't apply a tourniquet. Although this is common to see in movies or on TV, it worsens the outcome and makes it more likely that you could lose your arm and or leg. That is because it keeps all of the toxin in 1 place and gives it more time to cause damage. It also cuts off blood supply to any healthy tissue and causes more damage.

  • Don't try to suck the venom out. This is another movie and TV method that does not work. You can't get the venom out this way. But you may cause an infection and more damage.

At the emergency department you may be given:

  • Antibiotics to prevent or treat infections

  • Medicine to treat your pain

  • A special type of antivenin for the type of snake that bit you and the severity of your symptoms

Preventing snakebites

Some bites are not possible to prevent. For example, a snake may bite you when you accidentally step on it in the woods. But you can take steps to reduce your chances of being bitten by a snake. You can:

  • Leave snakes alone. Many people are bitten because they try to kill a snake or get too close to it.

  • Stay out of tall grass unless you wear thick leather boots. Stay on hiking paths as much as possible.

  • Keep hands and feet out of areas you can't see. Don't pick up rocks or firewood unless you are out of a snake's striking distance.

  • Be careful and alert when climbing rocks.

Online Medical Reviewer: Eric Perez MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Lu Cunningham
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2019
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