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It’s summertime, and warmer temps mean people are enjoying the outdoors with greater frequency. So, RECOIL OFFGRID is here to provide you with some tips to keep from provoking the bite by one of nature’s oldest predators.
Whether you’re wandering through their habitat, or should they make their way into yours, it’s helpful to identify the venomous snakes and know how to treat a bite.
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.
The majority of people bitten by snakes were either trying to handle a snake or inadvertently got too close. Encountering a snake should be dealt with in a manner similar to what you tell a child about finding an unattended firearm:
If you’re gathering firewood in snake country and searching in areas where a snake could potentially be burrowed, use a tool or a stick to roll the log or branch away from you, lest a snake be beneath it.
Should you hear a rattlesnake’s telltale warning sound, remain as still as possible and try to determine the snake’s location. Their vision isn’t the best, but they detect thermal patterns in the air, and if they’re rattling, they’re warning you to stay away. Movement of any type toward the snake will be perceived as a threat, and the snake will defend itself. When it’s safe to move (for example, when the snake lowers its head or moves away) do so quickly and away from the snake, keeping in mind that they can strike a distance of one-and-a-half times their body length.
Most snakes you’ll encounter in the wild aren’t venomous, but even these guys can bite if provoked. If you know that the snake is non-venomous, treat the bite as you would treat a puncture wound. Clean the wound and treat it for infection. Soap and water, alcohol, even Listerine mouthwash will do the job. Non-venomous snakes are known to eat carrion and their mouths can carry bacteria and toxins that lead to disease if left untreated.
There are four general types of venomous snakes found in North America. With the exception of the coral snake, they’re all pit vipers, identified by their thickset bodies, wedge-shaped heads, and elliptical pupils. Copperheads and water moccasins are most commonly encountered in, or near water.
Two subspecies: Eastern and Western
Range: Florida to North Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma
Coral snakes are neither aggressive, nor prone to biting and account for less than 1 percent of the number of snakebites each year in the United States. Their fangs are relatively short, but any bite that penetrates skin should be treated as a medical emergency requiring immediate attention. Coral snakes have a powerful neurotoxin that paralyzes the breathing muscles. Coral snakes are more worm-shaped, thin, and have a distinctive color pattern of red, yellow, and black bands (in that order). They can often be confused with the similarly colored, but non-venomous milk snake or scarlet king snake.
Five subspecies: Southern, Broad-banded, Northern, Osage and Trans-Pecos
Range: Florida to Massachusetts and as far west as Texas
Copperheads aren’t typically aggressive, and bites are rarely fatal. The venom is hemotoxic and destroys red blood cells, disrupts blood clotting, and can cause generalized tissue or organ damage.
Three subspecies: Florida, Western, and Eastern
Range: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, north to Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana
Water Moccasins are extremely aggressive, and their bites contain powerful cytotoxic venom that destroys tissue. Bites are rarely fatal, but are painful and can cause gangrene rapidly. You may not lose your life to one of these snakes, but the writer knows of two people who each lost an arm as a result of a bite.
There are numerous species and subspecies of rattlesnake (between 95 and 100 by some sources), discussion of each type goes beyond the scope of this article.
Range: Canada to Argentina. Most are found in the American Southwest and Mexico.
Rattlesnake venom is hemotoxic. It destroys tissue, causes necrosis, and disrupts blood clotting. The tiger rattlesnake and some varieties of the Mojave rattlesnake have a neurotoxic venom component that can cause severe paralysis. Behavior varies across the different species with some being more aggressive than most.
If there’s any chance that the snake is venomous, the victim has difficulty breathing, or loses consciousness, call 911 if possible. People allergic to bee stings may be more sensitive to snake bites as well.
In the Southeastern United States, particularly in Florida, there have been outbreaks of pythons roaming the wild. These pythons are non-native species that have invaded the ecosystem and have no natural predators. Some grow to lengths of over 15 feet. While many have escaped from breeding facilities, the majority are former pets that irresponsible owners set free when they grew too large.
Should you find yourself face to face with one a constrictor, don’t panic. Attacks on adult humans are rare. A python will typically bite its prey and throw its coils around the victim in an attempt to strangle it.
Don’t try to pry the mouth from your body, instead go for the tail and either attack it directly (most of the snake’s nerves are located in the tail) or grab the tail and start unwrapping the coils from that end as the muscles in its body will be stronger toward the front.
Move the victim away from the snake and beyond striking distance. Have the victim keep the wound below the heart. Keep the victim calm and at rest, remaining as still as possible to keep venom from spreading.
Remove any jewelry from the area that was bitten because it will swell. If the leg or foot was bitten, remove shoes for the same reason as removing the jewelry. Cover the wound with a loose, sterile bandage.
Despite what you may have read in 1950s Boy Scout handbooks, never cut a bite wound, attempt to suck out venom, apply a tourniquet (or ice), or give the victim alcohol, caffeinated drinks, or any other medications. Snakebite suction kits are equally worthless in this regard. [See our article “Debunked: Sucking Venom from a Snakebite” from RECOIL OFFGRID Issue 26 for more on this topic.]
Photograph or at the very least take note of the snake’s coloring and overall appearance. Describing it to emergency staff will help identify what you’ve been bitten by and the appropriate countermeasures. Medical treatment will be in the form of anti-venom. This is a serum made by injecting small doses of snake venom into a large host animal, such as a horse. For this reason, people allergic to horses may not be able to take anti-venom.
The host animal’s blood generates antibodies to counteract the effects of the venom. The blood is drawn from the host, freeze dried, and used to make the basic serum that’s further refined to treat snakebite in humans.
Due to anti-venom supplies being limited, and in many cases unavailable, If you’re in an extremely remote location with no access to medical attention there may be only one alternative.
For close to 60 years, an alternative method has been used to treat snakebite victims: electric shock treatment. When neither medical facilities nor anti-venom are accessible, first-aid electric shock has been touted as an acceptable alternative for treating snakebites by people in the field. The challenge remains that the responder needs an adequate source and method of delivering the shock.
Only limited clinical testing has been performed in the area of shock treatment efficacy. No one can say for certain why it works. The main working theory is that the voltage disrupts the chemical compounds in the venom and subsequently dilutes them. Another is that the shock triggers the body into another response mode, making the venom less potent because the shock kick starts the healing process to overcome the damage potentially caused by envenomation. If medical attention isn’t an option, it may be the only method available; however, it doesn’t come without peripheral risks, so this is of course a last resort.
A proven method is using electricity from spark plug cables found on an internal combustion engine, such as an outboard motor, air compressor, or lawn mower.
With the spark plug removed, the lead from the ignition circuit is applied to the bite victim and the starter pulled. Typically, the victim receives several pulses at the location of the bite before their limb jerks away. This may be done three or four times, at intervals of several seconds between each treatment.
Some authorities recommend the use of a modified stun gun. However, there’s so much disparity between makes and models that their recommendation and subsequent modifications are well outside the scope of this article. In April 1990 the FDA banned the advertising of stun guns as a treatment for venomous bites for this very reason.
There is very little research in the area of EpiPen efficacy in treating snakebites. Speak to your doctor before attempting to use one to counteract envenomation. Recent news indicates that researchers at the University of Arizona are working on an EpiPen-like device that may eventually be approved for use in combatting the effects of rattlesnake bites, but at this point, it’s still in the experimental phase.
Mike Searson has worked with dangerous animals as a wildlife trapper and exotic/dangerous animal rehabilitator in Florida. He has years of hands-on experience with chimpanzees, lions, bears, alligators, wolves, and primates and specializes in various spiders, snakes, and other reptiles. Known mostly for his gun, knife, and self-defense articles, his first published work was about breeding albino cobras in 1992.