Dr. Scott Hickey, Emergency Medicine, Chippenham Hospital
As a result of an increase in urbanization and warmer weather, the United States has seen an increase in the number of snake bites reported annually. Fortunately, most bites are treated without serious consequences. According to the Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation at the University of Florida, “of the 7,000 to 8,000 bites per year” there are about “5-6 fatalities.”
The rattlesnake is found most often in Arizona and California and is considered the most poisonous in the U.S. The copperhead bites more people per year, but their venom is less potent and rarely fatal. Still, all snake bites require some form of medical treatment, from basic first aid to the administration of anti-venom and hospitalization. The best bet for not getting bitten by a snake is to learn how to avoid them in the first place.
Traits of Venomous Snakes
While there are some common traits of venomous (pit viper) snakes, they can be difficult to discern, especially when unexpectedly confronted by one. In general, they share these characteristics:
- An arrowhead-shaped head versus an oval head
- Wider in the middle than non-venomous snakes
- Slit-like pupils similar to a cat versus round pupils of non-venomous snakes
Comparison of venomous snakes (pit vipers) and nonvenomous snakes in the United States:
Source: Textbook of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, 6th edition, Fleisher GR, Ludwig S (Eds), Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, 2010. Copyright © 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides the following recommendations for preventing and treating snake bites:
- If you see a snake in your home, immediately call the animal control agency in your area.
- When outside, wear long pants, tall boots, and gloves, if possible.
- Be aware of snakes that may swim in water or that may hide under debris or other objects.
- If you see a snake, back away from it slowly and do not touch it.
Signs of a Snake Bite
You may feel a bite, especially if walking in high water, but not know that it is a snake that bit you. Pay attention to the following snake bite signs:
- A pair of puncture marks at the wound
- Redness and swelling around the bite
- Severe pain at the site of the bite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Labored breathing (in extreme cases, breathing may stop altogether)
- Disturbed vision
- Increased salivation and sweating
- Numbness or tingling around your face and/or limbs
How To Treat a Snake Bite
If you or someone you know are bitten, try to see and remember the color and shape of the snake. Taking a picture, if possible, can help with accurately identifying the snake and administering proper treatment.
- Keep the person still and calm. This can slow down the spread of venom if the snake is poisonous.
- Seek medical attention as soon as possible.
- Dial 911 or call local Emergency Medical Services (EMS).
- Apply first aid if you cannot get the person to the hospital right away.
- Lay or sit the person down with the bite below the level of the heart.
- Remove rings or other restricting accessories in case of swelling.
- Tell him/her to stay calm and still.
- Cover the bite with a clean, dry dressing.
How NOT to Treat a Snake Bite
Contrary to popular belief, there are some first aid techniques that are now considered to be outdated and may do more harm than good:
- Do not pick up the snake or try to trap it (this may put you or someone else at risk for a bite).
- Do not apply a tourniquet.
- Do not slash the wound with a knife.
- Do not suck out the venom.
- Do not apply ice or immerse the wound in water.
- Do not drink alcohol as a pain killer.
- Do not drink caffeinated beverages.
Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation at the University of Florida: Venomous Snake Frequently Asked Questions
Textbook of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, 6th edition, Fleisher GR, Ludwig S (Eds), Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, 2010. Copyright © 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.