The best thing to do is to avoid a bite altogether. For that, read my snake safety tips
page. However, if you've already
been bitten by a snake, then you may need treatment. The first thing I'll state is that I'm writing this for people in North America, in
particular the USA. With the
exception of the Coral Snake, all venomous snakes in the USA are pit vipers. This means the Copperhead, the Cottonmouth, and many species of rattlesnakes. These snakes
have big fangs, and a cytotoxic venom that dissolves tissue. Basically, if you've received a venomous strike YOU KNOW IT
- there is no mistaking it, there is no
wondering "was that bite venomous?" Your tissues will be dissolving before your eyes, the bite site black and blue and swollen, like a bee sting times a million. If
you were bitten by a snake and you aren't in the worst pain of your life, then it was not a venomous snake. Unless it was a coral snake
which it almost certainly wasn't. That snake has the neurotoxic (nerve attacking) venom that can creep up on you until you can't breathe. But the pit vipers in the USA -
painful stuff. The majority of snakebites in the USA, of course, come from non-venomous snakes.
Click here for my nationwide list of 100's of professional snake trappers serving all 50 states.
There are many snakes in the world, and while a good number of them are venomous, there are far more that don’t have lethal toxin to inject when they strike. This doesn’t mean that a nonvenomous snake bite won’t hurt, but it does mean that you probably won’t feel like your arm or leg is melting away from excruciating, painful flames. A lot of movies and old legends have skewed what we think we know about snake bite first aid, and a lot of what you’ve seen or heard is not only false, but might cause more damage than the bite itself.
Snake Bite First Aid:
We’ll assume that a snake bit you because it was camouflaged and you accidentally grabbed it or stepped on it. We’re going to assume this because we know you’d never try to recklessly handle a snake, or try to kill a venomous one when you know it can strike you at a distance much further than the reach of a stick or garden tool. Now that you’ve been bitten, regardless of your part in the whole event, you need to know what to do and what to avoid.
First, remain calm and call for help. If you get too worked up and panicked over the bite, your heart will beat faster and any venom will spread throughout your body at an increased speed. Even if the snake is not venomous, keeping calm will allow you to remember the rest of the first aid protocol. On the same note about circulation, try to position the bite wound lower than your chest. Gravity will help slow the spread of any venom. Stay away from caffeine and alcohol, both of which will thin your blood. Before the area swells to unrecognizable proportions, remove any restrictive clothing or jewelry that might become too tight as fluid collects in the area. Any snake bite, regardless of species, will result in swelling at the wound site.
The area should then be gently cleaned but not flushed. Too much irrigation can damage tissue, and if you’ve been attacked by a venomous snake, there will already be enough of that to worry about. Preservation of viable tissue is the most important goal you can accomplish with a snake bite. For this reason, cutting the wound, applying ice, and applying tourniquets are not recommended. Most of these actions will not prevent the spread of venom, and you risk losing an entire limb if you damage too much of the tissue trying to get the venom out. If you have a suction device, you can use it after the wound has been cleaned, though there is no significant proof that suctioning eliminates enough venom to make a difference. You should never attempt to suck venom out with your mouth. All it takes is one open cut in the lining of your mouth for you to be increasing your exposure to a dangerous toxin.
Wrap the area to prevent movement and protect the wound, but do not restrict blood flow to the site. If you must move, wait twenty minutes for the venom to set up in the tissue before you get your heart pumping with exertion.
Be sure to remember what the snake looked like, but do not try to catch it or kill it.
Snake Bite Treatment:
What happens once you reach the hospital largely depends on what type of snake bit you. Nonvenomous snake bites are treated with antibiotics and medications that remove excess fluid from the body. Your doctor might prescribe pain medications based on the severity and part of the body affected. This wound will require close monitoring at home to make sure infection does not set in. Hot packing the puncture wounds will keep them open and draining which is what you want for a few days to make sure any bacteria or debris is flushed out. With proper cleaning and home care, a snake bite will scab over and the tissue will begin to repair itself.
Venomous snakes are another story. By the time you reach the hospital, you may need serious emergency care. The doctor will examine you for swollen lymph nodes and bleeding from old, unrelated wounds. Muscle weakness, difficulty to breathe, blindness, and loss of speech are all signs of serious complications. Even if you have not yet experienced these symptoms, the doctor will perform a series of blood clotting tests to determine how severely the body has been debilitated. Doctors will only administer antivenin if it is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, there is a risk for serious, life-threatening complications with the serum, and only patients that have no other options are given the dose. If you have been this seriously affected by the venom, you will most likely be placed on a respirator and a dialysis machine while your organs recover. Depending on the snake, you will have to stay at the hospital for at least 48 hours to make sure there is no reoccurrence of the envenoming symptoms.
Aftercare of a Snake Bite:
Taking care of your wound at home is a vital part of the recovery process. Most medical complications occur because patients did not follow their homecare directions. You do not know better than your doctor; unless you like to visit the hospital often, stay on the dictated route to recovery.
You would think it goes without saying; however, make sure you take all of your prescribed medications. People like to save two or three pills “just in case” they might be needed down the road. By shorting yourself on antibiotic treatment, you not only risk creating bacterial immunity to the medication, you run the risk of having a secondary infection flare up weeks later. The amount of antibiotics prescribed is the scientific amount required to completely kill off that specific pathogen in your wound. If you don’t finish the medications, you won’t kill all the germs.
Keep up with your physical therapy. It might seem like the mundane, rhythmic motions taught to you by the therapist aren’t worth doing, but these exercises are specifically designed to keep your limb from stiffening up and losing range of motion. It is much harder to rehabilitate a limb after it has lost function rather than to treat it while it is healing.
Of all the reported snake bites around the world, there are an estimated 125,000 deaths annually. Most of these deadly bites occur in Africa and Asia. North America has a relatively low occurrence, most likely because there are few truly venomous snakes in the region. There are only an estimated ten deaths a year from snake bites in The United States, and most of these were due to secondary complications after the event.
The best way to treat a snake bite is to never get one, something that is relatively easy if you keep your wits about you. Never try to kill a snake; they have incredible striking distance and speed. You will almost always come out on the losing end. Venomous snakes will not strike unless they feel threatened. Whenever you spot a deadly snake, leave it alone. It will not chase you. If you are having issues with snakes, contact a professional who can advise you on the best routes available to manage your problem.
Here are some other snake links:
How To Trap Snakes
What Animals Kill Snakes
Color Rhyme for Coral Snakes
How Can You Tell if a Snake is Poisonous
How to Kill Snakes
Snake Safety Tips
How to Catch Snakes
How Do You Keep Snakes Away
Do Mothballs Keep Away Snakes
Eastern Coral Snake
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
Snakes in the Attic
Photographs of Snake Poop
coral snake look alikes
Go back to my main snake removal
page for more general snake info other than Snake Bite Aftercare, Treatment, First Aid, Fatalities.