Snake Bite FAQ

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Poisonous snakebite is a potentially serious accident. It can lead to severe pain or other problems, and in the rare instance even death. However in North America it is not nearly as dangerous as most believe. Snakes seldom bite humans and even when they do so, their bites are seldom fatal. There is no need to allow fear of snakes to ruin your enjoyment of the outdoors.

Snakes will usually avoid you if you give them a chance. Try to be sure they know you are coming. Don't reach into places they might hide. Be careful turning over rock and boards in snake country. Leave snakes alone; there is no simple rule to identify which are poisonous. The same advice applies to dead snakes and detached heads—reflex bites are as dangerous as bites from live snakes.

At least half of all bites are caused by foolish behavior: handling or taunting venomous snakes, or failing to move away from a venomous snake once it has been sighted.

If someone is bitten

The following treatment protocol is provided by Jeff Isaac and Peter Goth in The Outward Bound Wilderness First Aid Handbook (Lyons and Burford, 1991).

"Transport the patient as quickly as possible to antivenin (antidote). Although local discomfort may be severe, systemic signs and symptoms maybe delayed for two to six hours following the bite. Walking your patient out is reasonably safe unless severe signs and symptoms occur. It is also significantly faster than trying a carry. Splint the affected part if possible.

Expect swelling. Remove constricting items such as rings, bracelets, and clothing from the bitten extremity.

Do not delay. Immediately following the bite of a snake thought to be poisonous, evacuation should be started. It can always be slowed down or canceled if it becomes obvious that envenomation did not occur, or the snake is not poisonous.

Most medical experts agree that traditional field treatments such as tourniquets, pressure dressing, ice packs, and "cut and suck" snakebite kits are generally ineffective and are possibly dangerous. Poisonous snakebite is one of those conditions that you cannot treat in the field. Don't waste valuable time trying."

If it is going to be more than one hour to transport, you should consider rinsing and disinfecting the wound.

Snakebite is always a hot topic. In what follows we will attempt to describe prevention and treatment of bites by poisonous snakes in North America as well as the effects of such bites. Be aware that we are dealing with overreaction and hype here. Popular literature, folklore, and movies have greatly exaggerated both the probability of snakebite and the likely outcome should it happen. Humans are much less likely to get bitten than many people believe. Furthermore snakebite, while serious, is not the death sentence often implied. Snakes, poisonous and otherwise, have excited a lot of aversion and superstition over the ages, resulting in unwarranted fear and sometimes even panic. This fear and panic can lead to:

  • Improper treatment of those cases which need treatment for envenomation.
  • Dangerous overtreatment for bites in which envenomation does not occur.
  • Worsening the outcome of snakebites due to panic.
  • Unnecessary and dangerous treatment of bites by nonvenomous snakes.
  • Unnecessary, expensive, and dangerous rescue operations.
  • Unnecessary destruction of snakes and their habitat.
Snakebite in the U.S. should be treated conservatively. There is no need to jump in with knives, tourniquets, ice, or compression bandages. There is no need to try to suck out the venom by mouth. Carrying out any of these extreme procedures has the potential to do far more harm than good. We will explain later in this FAQ the reasons that such extreme measures do not form part of the therapy for snakebite. Victims should be given only the appropriate treatment and then be rapidly evacuated to medical facilities.


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