One of the few
wildlife dangers we face here in the coastal plains is a venomous
snake bite. Although a snake bite is considered to be a rarity,
venomous or otherwise, peolpe seem to spend a great amount of energy
worrying about it. Hikers, hunters, anglers and others who spend a
majority of their time outdoors are concerned with running into a
venomous snake while participating in their activities. Retail
stores that serve the "outdoor folk" carry various products
that address this concern. From snake repellants and protective
clothing to snake bite first aid kits, they've got it all. But
knowledge of venomous snakes, which you can find just about any where
these days from books to web sites, is always a better way to protect
A venomous snake bite is exremely rare. So rare in fact, that
you are more likely to be struck by lighting than to be bitten by a
venomous snake. Fact is, almost every venomous snake bite recorded
to date, has been from an encounter that was deliberately initiated
by a human. Meaning, snakes DO NOT seek us out to intentionally bite
us. It it also true however, that some bites do occur as the result
of a "chance" or "surprise" encounter with a
venomous snake. To better protect yourself from one of these types of
encounters with a venomous snake read the information below to make
your outdoor activities a little more relaxing.
1: Avoid snakes. This is the easiest
remedy. Snakes are not interested in people and will avoid an
encounter if at all possible. Should an encounter occur, the
snake will often threaten and warn before ever actually biting.
Biting is a really bad defensive strategy for a small animal because
the animal has to get too close and expose itself to injury before it
can actually bite. So the snakes are looking out for you and if
you look out for the snake, the threat is significantly reduced.
Looking out for the snake is not really a difficult matter either.
The snake will never aggresively come after you, so all you have to
do is be careful about where you put your feet and hands when in
snake habitat (which can be anywhere in their range). Should you see
a snake, keep away from it, regardless of whether it is
venomous, unless you really know what you are doing. After snake
keepers, most snake bites occur when the person approaches the snake
to destroy it.
2: Wear protective clothing. If you
are an avid outdoors enthusiast, you may encounter venomous snakes by
chance. Depending on which activities you participate in, this may be
inevitable. However, this should be of little concern. Snakes
encountered in the field will attempt to avoid you and will threaten
before resorting to biting. A bite will most likely be the result of
surprise physical contact; that is, the snake gets stepped on,
grabbed accidentally or nudged in some way. In these cases, some sort
of protective clothing can help quite a bit. The most common
situation would be stepping on a snake. In this case thick shoes or
boots will stop most bites. Most of the venomous snakes in the
Coastal Plains are small or have small fangs. The noteable exceptions
are Timber and Diamondback Rattlesnakes. The rest, Pygmy
Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, Cottonmouths and Coral Snakes all have
very small fangs and their bite can easily be thwarted. The two big
Rattlesnakes can bite above the protective shoes, but their size
makes them easier to spot also. Aside from conventional shoes there
are Snake Boots, which go up to the knee and Snake Chaps, which can
cover the whole leg. These will work to thwart just about any
potential bite, but they are heavy and uncomfortable, so you will
have to choose.
3: So, in this case, you've been
bitten by a venomous snake. In this circumstance, there is a clear
prescribed set of steps to follow, and a clear list of actions to
take and to NOT take. These are enumerated below:
- DO...Identify the snake if possible. If it is
venomous and it is anything except the Coral Snake, the same
antivenin will be used, but local effects of the bite can vary with
species. Moccasins have locally destructive bites while copperheads
have more mild effects. Neither are usually fatal, but large
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake can be both destructive and fatal.
- DO...Stay calm (both the bite victim and the aid
renderer) and treat for shock. Shock kills
faster than most injuries, so apply apropriate first aid for shock.
Stay Calm, loosen clothing, elevate the feet, lie down, continually
engage in conversation.
- DO...Go to the hospital. Antivenin is the only
proven remedy for a bite. Other first aid measures can be used to
help calm the bite victim, but are of little additional value.
Snake venom can take days to kill a reasonably sized human, but can
cause severe local damage quickly so it is best to get medical
attention quickly. Also, an allergic reaction can be deadly, so the
faster the victim is under competent medical care the better.
People who go out of their way to find snakes or are otherwise
under increased risk should carry an EpiPen®.
This can counter any allergic reaction quickly and save your life.
- DON'T...panic. Shock kills more people than snakes, and more
people die of non-venomous bites than from venomous bites.
- DON'T...apply a tourniquette. Snake venom is a digestive aid.
Applying a tourniquette reduces the mass of the affected area and
can lead to greater local damage.
- DON'T...use ice. Ice can reduce the obvious effects of the bite
and make it difficult for the doctor to assess the severity.
- DON'T...drink alcohol. Alcohol thins the blood and wekens the
- DON'T...apply electric current to the bite. This is the opposite
- DON'T...cut the bite area. Apply suction if you like, but cutting
simply adds a bleeding injury to the snake bite. This is also the
opposite of help. Tissue is porous like a sponge. Would cutting a
sponge make it easier to suck fluid out of it?
- DON'T...attempt to capture or kill the snake. This can lead to
being bitten again.
- DON'T...bring a snake to the emergency room. This will lead to
more panic and excitement.
Commercial snake-bite first aid tools are
available but there is no evidence to date that they significantly
affect the bite. However, they are also usually harmless and can aid
in calming the victim, so feel free to use them.
Venomous reptile keepers sometime like to
have antivenin on-hand. This is a good idea, especially for exotic
species, however, it can be expensive and has a relatively short
shelf life. It is probably just as good to have a list of locations
that store antivenin, like zoos or antivenin banks.
Fangs of the Eastern Diamondback
Rattlesnake. Note the Venom gathered at the tips.
Photo by W.T.Helfrich
A bite from a pit-viper (ie.,
rattlesnake, copperhead, or cottonmouth), is immediately
painful. The bite victim can expect a severe burning sensation
along with throbing pain. Swelling and discoloration around the
bite area will be quickly evident as well. This means that if
you have been envenomated by one of these snakes, it will be
obvious. Non-venomous bites do little more than bleed slightly
and are usually painless. There will be little wondering
whether the bite was venomous or not, so get to the hospital
and don't spend too much time identifying the snake. Coral
Snake bites are different. The bite may cause no pain
whatsoever and cause no discoloration except locally. the
effects of pit-vipers will be immediate, while a coral snake
bite may take hours or days to manifest symptoms. Since coral
snakes deliver little venom in a bite, they are seldom fatal,
but because the venom is so toxic, it is unwise to let it go
untreated. Coral snakes, however, are one of the least likely
snakes to bite, even amongst non-venomous snakes.
An actual venomous snake-bite can be a dangerous
and traumatic experience, so haveing a plan for this
possibility is advantageous. That being said, caution is good,
paranoia or irrational terror is not. Snake bite is rare,
fatalities from snake bite are even rarer and the observant and
prepared person has little to fear.