Snake Bites: Fact vs. Fiction

By August 9, 2021Health Tips
In the United States, thousands of venomous snakebites occur each year.  Because reporting of snakebites is not mandated, the exact numbers are difficult to determine.  This time of year, many of us enjoy activities like hiking and camping, which can put us in a snake’s natural habitat and that increases our likelihood of having a dangerous run-in with one.  After a natural disaster, such as a flood or a forest fire, snakes may have been forced from their natural habitats into areas where you would not expect to see them.
Snake BiteThere are numerous myths and misconceptions about snakebites and how to respond to them.  Let’s talk about what you need to know about snakebites to keep you safe.
First let’s talk about the basics.
Most snakes are not dangerous to humans.  Only about 20% of snakes in the US are venomous.  These venomous snakes include the rattlesnake, water moccasin (also called a cottonmouth), copperhead, and coral snake.  A bite from one of these snakes can cause severe injuries and sometimes death, but not always.  About 25-30% of venomous snakebites are dry, meaning there is no venom deposited with the bite.  It is always best to treat all snakebites as a medical emergency unless you are absolutely certain that the bite came from a non-venomous snake.  Any delay in treatment following a venomous snakebite could result in death or serious injury.
What are the symptoms of a snake bite?
Sometimes you may feel a bite or stinging sensation but not see what bit you.  You may think it is another kind of bite or scratch.  If you are in an area where snakes might be present, you should be suspicious.  The symptoms of a snakebite can differ depending on what type of bite it is.  A dry snakebite will usually just cause some mild redness and swelling around the bite.  A venomous snakebite can cause widespread symptoms that can include:
  • Bite marks on the skin, which may be puncture wounds or smaller marks that may not look like a snakebite.  These are usually on arms or legs as this is the most common place for a snakebite.
  • Pain around the bite, which may not start right away.  Pain can be sharp, throbbing, or burning.  Pain may progress to involve the entire limb that was bitten.  Keep in mind that not all snakebites cause pain, particularly the bite from a coral snake can be almost painless at first.
  • Redness, swelling, bruising, in the area of the bite, which can progress to severe tissue damage.
  • Low blood pressure, a faster heart rate, or a weaker pulse.
  • Nausea and vomiting, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision.
  • Increased sweating and increased saliva production.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Weakness, numbness, or tingling in the face or extremities.
  • Abnormal blood clotting or bleeding.
Some people have an allergic reaction to a snakebite.  This would cause additional symptoms, including:
  • Tightness in the throat and/or tongue swelling, which may cause difficulty speaking.
  • Coughing or wheezing, with difficulty breathing.
  • Significant paleness.
What should you do if you or someone with you is bitten by a snake?
Get immediate medical attention.  This is the first and most important thing to do.  Call 911 or get to an emergency room as soon as possible.  Even if the bite isn’t painful, it could be life-threatening.  Here are some other things that you can do:
  • Move out of the snake’s striking distance.
  • Remove jewelry such as rings or watches and any tight clothing before swelling starts.
  • Try to remain calm.  Do some slow deep breathing to calm yourself.
  • Lie down and be still without unnecessary movement, with the area of the bite either at or below the level of the heart.
  • If possible, clean the area with soap and water and cover it with a clean, dry dressing.
  • Try to remember what the snake looked like, including color, size, shape,  and markings, so that you can describe it to medical providers.  You can even try to take a picture of it from a safe distance, but only if that will not delay your treatment.
What should you NOT do?
There are a number of myths or old wives’ tales about how to respond to a snakebite that are not only not helpful, but they can also be harmful.
  • DO NOT use a tourniquet of any kind.
  • DO NOT cut the wound or try to remove venom in any way.  DO NOT use any type of suction.
  • DO NOT apply ice or put the bitten area in an ice bath or in water.
  • DO NOT try to capture or kill the snake.  First, this can delay your treatment.  Second, it might result in a second bite either to you or those with you.  Third, even dead snakes can cause a “bite” that injects venom.
  • DO NOT drink caffeine or alcohol, which might speed your body’s absorption of venom.
How can you prevent a snakebite?
  • Wear boots and long, loose-fitting pants when hiking or in snake-prone areas.
  • Stay on trails when hiking, away from tall weeds and underbrush.
  • DO NOT touch or disturb a snake, even if it looks like it is dead.
  • Always look for a concealed snake before picking up rocks, sticks, or firewood.
  • Do not hike alone in remote areas.  Having a hiking partner is important to help in a crisis.
  • Teach children to respect snakes and to leave them alone.
If you have any questions about snake bites, please log into your account and send
us your question. We are here to help.

Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor

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