Venomous snakes are found throughout the United States, and the CDC estimates that between 7,000 and 8,000 individuals are bitten by venomous snakes each year. Most snakes will only bite humans if they feel threatened, but hikers, backpackers, and those who spend considerable time outdoors may unknowingly enter a snake's path. If this interaction results in a bite, it's important to know what to do immediately. Otherwise, the venom of several common American snakes (such as rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads) can cause serious injury, limb loss, or even death.

Animal Attack 2-1

Unfortunately, many misconceptions about snake bites still exist. Possibly the most pervasive is that the venom should be sucked out of the wound immediately by mouth, to prevent it from entering the bloodstream. Other myths state that applying a tourniquet will slow the spread of venom, or even that cutting away the affected tissue will save the victim. None of these claims are true—in fact, they'll generally make things worse.

The infographic below summarizes the basics of snake bite first aid:

Infographic snake bite first aid 1

Seems simple enough, right? That's because it is. If you can conceivably get the victim of a snakebite to a hospital, immobilizing the affected limb and doing so should be the first priority. Again, go immediately to a hospital. This is the only effective option for venomous snake bites.


Now, you may be thinking: what if there isn't a hospital nearby? When professional medical care is absolutely not a possibility, the situation gets grim. There really isn't much you can do to fix a snakebite without antivenom, but you can at least slow the spread of the toxin.

Here's what you can do if hospital care is not available:

  • Immobilize the wound, and wash with soap and water as seen above.
  • Keep the victim calm and stationary—minimize heart rate and stop all physical activity.
  • If possible, call the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. It is open 24/7 and an adviser can provide help over the phone.
  • Do not apply ice or a tourniquet. Do not give the victim alcohol, caffeine, or painkillers.
  • Do NOT elevate the wound—in fact, do the opposite. Have the victim sit or lie down with the bite site BELOW the level of the heart.
  • Apply a clean bandage to the wound, and hope for the best. Some snake bites are “dry bites” with no venom injection, so they may be survivable without professional treatment.
  • If neurotoxic venom has been injected, and you are certain no medical care or antivenom is available, there is very little that can be done. Get comfortable and try to signal for rescue.

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