WARNING: This article is meant to be an overview and not a detailed guide on dealing with venomous snakebites. Professional medical treatment should always be sought before attempting any of these methods.

Your hike in a remote area seemed great until a searing pain hits your ankle. Instinctively, you jump back in surprise and glimpse a coiled snake with brown and tan markings. Burning pain begins to spread through your lower leg. With your pulse and fear rising, you realize that you’ve just been bitten by a venomous snake.

The Myth

Outdated survival manuals and old movies often illustrate the “cut and suck” practice of snakebite treatment. This medieval medical method involves cutting the flesh at the site of the bite, then sucking on the wound with your mouth or an extraction device. In the stressful aftermath of a real snakebite, we might decide to fall back on the pop culture practice, but this procedure is likely to increase the damage already done.

The Reality

Unless you know exactly where arteries and nerves are located in the area of the snakebite, you could sever tendons, nerves, or blood vessels. You could end up compounding a venomous bite with potentially severe bleeding.

Many medical authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agree that almost no venom will be removed by extraction and that extraction kits are essentially useless. One study suggested that less than one-thousandth of a percent of venom gets removed by extraction. Furthermore, the venom may be introduced directly into the bloodstream if you accidentally slice a blood vessel adjacent to a pocket of venom.

Many doctors and herpetologists have estimated that roughly one quarter to one third of the bites from venomous adult snakes are a “warning bite,” more commonly called a dry bite. This is an attack intended to repel a perceived threat, with little or no venom expended. Since adult snakes can control the amount of venom they inject, they don’t want to waste it on something that won’t fit into their mouth (like a human). You’ll usually know in less than one hour if the needle-like stab is the only sensation you feel or if more signs and symptoms follow.

The Alternatives

Take the following steps if you or someone in your group is bitten by a venomous snake:

  • Seek medical attention as soon as possible, if it’s available (dial 911 or local EMS).
  • Wash the bite with soap and water, or a disinfecting solution like iodine and water. Cover pit viper bites with a clean, dry dressing. For the bite of a coral snake, use an Ace bandage or an improvised wrap (like a strip of stretchy fabric) to create a compression dressing, starting above the bite and then covering it.
  • If EMS can reach you quickly, keep still and calm. This keeps your heart rate down and can slow down the spread of venom. If you have to move, walk as slowly as you can. And if help is inaccessible for the foreseeable future, lay down with the bite below the level of your heart and pray to God that it was a dry bite. If it wasn’t, you may be able to survive pit viper venom. Unfortunately, the paralytic effect of coral snake venom means that your chances aren’t good at all in austere conditions.

Know The Symptoms

rattlesnake on a rock

Envenomation is unpredictable, and the signs and symptoms can vary depending on the type of snake, the amount of venom, and your body’s reaction to it. Reactions can begin in minutes or be delayed for hours, and any venomous snakebite can cause dangerous neurotoxic complications and problems with blood clotting. The most common bites in the U.S. are from pit vipers (rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths). Expect some or all of these signs in a victim:

  • From a pit viper, a pair of puncture marks in the skin or, very rarely, one mark (when a fang is deflected by some other obstruction, such as clothing).
  • Redness, swelling, and severe pain around the bite
  • Increased salivation, sweating, and a “coppery” or metallic taste in the victim’s mouth
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Numbness
  • Difficulty breathing

Don’t try to catch or kill the snake. Take a picture of it if you can, from a safe distance. Or try to remember the color and pattern of the snake.

Never apply a tourniquet. Even with neurotoxic venom, don’t cut off the blood flow. Tourniquets hold the venom in one area, causing greater tissue damage after the fact. Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Applying ice to the bite won’t help.

Snakebite Stats

Of the 50,000 snakebite deaths that occur worldwide each year, the U.S. accounts for less than half a dozen of them, on average. Of the thousands of annual U.S. snakebites, one third occur when people are handling or otherwise taunting the animals. Many of these bites occur on the hand or forearm.

When people aren’t harassing venomous snakes, 85 percent of bites occur below the knee. At least one venomous snake species is found in every state, except for Alaska and Hawaii, although Hawaii residents experience attacks by non-native species, such as the Brown Tree Snake, which had inadvertently been introduced to their ecosystem. Most species and subspecies of venomous snakes in the United States are rattlesnakes.

For more on snakebite avoidance and treatment, refer to our article “Slithering Danger: How to Avoid and Survive a Snakebite” by wildlife trapper and dangerous animal rehabilitator Mike Searson.

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