Snake Bites

Written by Mary Ellen Ellis | Published on August 5, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD on August 5, 2014

What Are Snake Bites?

According to the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University, about 5,000 snake bite cases are reported every year in the U.S. (Wexner). A bite from a venomous snake can be deadly, and 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, and nausea—even paralysis.

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

Identifying Venomous Snakes

pit viper

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 act in the event of a bite. If you are unsure if the snake that bit you is venomous, treat the situation as if it was.

Most snakes in the U.S. are not venomous, but several types are. All but the coral snake are pit vipers, distinguishable by a pit, or depression, between the eye and nostril. Pit vipers also have a triangular head.

If you or someone you are with has been bitten by a snake, you will likely know immediately. It is 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

rattlesnake

Rattlesnakes are easily identifiable by the rattling sound they make with their tails. They have rings at the end of their tails that they can shake when threatened. This is a warning to back away. Rattlesnakes are the largest of the venomous snakes and cause most of the venomous bites in the U.S. each year (Wexner). These snakes can be found in nearly any habitat across the country. They like open areas, rocks, and logs where they can rest in the sun.

Symptoms

Symptoms specific to rattlesnake bites include:

  • immediate pain and symptoms
  • drooping eyelids
  • low blood pressure
  • thirst
  • tiredness or muscle weakness

Water Moccasins/Cottonmouths

water moccasins

The water moccasin is another pit viper. This snake is also known as a cottonmouth, for 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, in or near water. They do not scare easily. (CDC, 2012)

Symptoms

Water moccasin bites share symptoms with copperhead bites. Symptoms specific to both of these types include:

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

Copperheads

copperhead

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 when someone accidentally steps on or near one (CDC, 2012).

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

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

It is essential to get a victim of a snake bite to a medical facility for emergency treatment as quickly as possible. However, there are some tips that you should also keep in mind:

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Keep the victim calm and still. Movement can cause the venom to move more quickly through the body. Consider making a splint to restrict the movement of the affected area.
  • Remove constricting clothing or jewelry. The area of the bite will likely swell, so it is important to remove these items quickly.
  • Carry or transport the victim by vehicle. This person should not be allowed to walk.
  • If the snake is dead, take it with you for identification. Do not waste time hunting it down, though.

There are also several outdated first aid techniques that are now believed to be unhelpful or even harmful. Do not do any of the following:

  • 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 victim 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 (CDC, 2012).
  • Do not use a pump suction device. While these devices were formerly recommended for pumping out snake venom, it is 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 victim is to get him or her 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 an antivenom. This is a substance that is created with snake venom to counter the snake bite symptoms. It is injected into the victim intravenously. The sooner the antivenom is used, the more effective it will be.

Prevention of Snake Bites

Snake bites can be prevented in many cases. Refrain from approaching or handling snakes in the wild. Avoid areas of tall grass and piled leaves, as well as rock and woodpiles. These are typical places in which snakes like to hide.

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.

Outlook for a Snake Bite

The outlook for snake bite victims 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.

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