Rattlesnake bites are a medical emergency. Rattlesnakes are venomous. If you’re bitten by one it can be dangerous, but it’s very rarely fatal. However, if left untreated, the bite may result in severe medical problems or death.
The venom from the majority of rattlesnake bites will damage tissue and affect your circulatory system by destroying skin tissues and blood cells and by causing you to hemorrhage internally. Most rattlesnake venom is composed mainly of hemotoxic elements.
There are around 30 different species of rattlesnake in the world. They can usually be easily identified by their distinctive buzz or rattle, from which their name derives. They use this rattle as a signal for predators to stay away.
If you’re bitten by a rattlesnake, you may notice one or two puncture marks made by their large fangs. You’ll usually experience some pain, tingling, or burning in the area where you’ve been bitten. There may also be some swelling, bruising, or discoloration at the site. Other common symptoms include:
- numbness in the face or limbs
- nausea or vomiting
- blurred vision
- difficulty breathing
Some snake bites may be mistaken for rattlesnake bites when they’re not. Learn more about other snake bites.
The first and most important thing to do is get away from the snake, as they can strike again if they feel threatened. Don’t waste time trying to catch the snake, but try to remember its size and color. This may help your medical team identify which species it was that bit you and locate the correct antivenin.
Seek medical assistance as soon as possible. Call for an ambulance if you’re able to.
There are some common misconceptions about the treatment of rattlesnake bites. While waiting for the ambulance, here’s how to minimize your risk:
- Don’t raise the area above the level of the heart. If you do this, your blood containing rattlesnake venom will reach your heart more quickly.
- Stay as still as possible, as movement will increase your blood flow and the venom will circulate faster.
- Remove any tight clothing or jewelry before you start to swell.
- Let the wound bleed, as this may allow some of the venom to be released.
- Don’t wash the wound, as your medical team may be able to use some of the venom from your skin to more quickly identify the correct antivenin.
- Place a clean bandage on the wound.
- Try to remain calm, as anxiety and panic can increase your heart rate, which will cause the venom to spread.
- If you begin to experience signs of shock, try to lie down on your back, raise your feet slightly, and keep warm.
- Don’t cut the wound, as this doesn’t help and you could cause an infection.
- Don’t try to suck the venom from the wound, as you then introduce the venom to your mouth as well as introduce the bacteria from your mouth to the wound.
- Don’t use a tourniquet or apply ice or water.
It’s imperative that you get to the hospital as soon as possible. Don’t waste time on procedures that have been shown to be ineffective.
Once bitten, the venom takes only seconds to travel from the rattlesnake’s retractable fangs, through your skin, and into your bloodstream. You’ll begin to see symptoms immediately, but your symptoms will worsen over time. You should reach medical help within 30 minutes of being bitten. If the bite is left untreated, your bodily functions will break down over a period of two or three days and the bite may result in severe organ damage or death.
You’ll likely leave the hospital with pain medication. Don’t wait to be in pain before you take it, and take as directed by your healthcare provider. Attend follow-up appointments to ensure your wound is healing well. You must contact your healthcare provider if your wound shows signs of infection. If your symptoms persist, return to the emergency department.
In most treated cases, people fully recover from rattlesnake bites.
In recent years, the long-term side effects from rattlesnake bites seem to have increased in severity, though there has been very little research into why this may be. In some cases, people have become critically ill and taken months to recover following a rattlesnake bite. It’s possible to go into severe shock, which can lead to strokes. In some instances, people have lost a portion of their intestines due to restricted blood flow, and others have gone into kidney failure. These are side effects that were rarely seen in previous years.
The outlook for a rattlesnake bite is good as long as you receive emergency care as soon as possible after the bite occurs. Shallow bites have a better outlook than deeper ones, and healthy adults will recover faster than children or people with weak immune systems.