To some people, they are harmless. To others, they are a source of outright loathing and horror. There are more than 3,000 species of snakes in the world. At least one kind of snake can be found on every continent except for Antarctica. They are found in forests, deserts, swamps and grasslands. Many call underground burrows or the spaces under rocks home. It’s estimated that snakes inflict 2.5 million venomous bites each year, resulting in about 125,000 deaths worldwide. The actual number may be much larger. Southeast Asia, India, Brazil, and areas of Africa have the most deaths due to snakebite. About 7,000 snake bite cases are reported every year in the United States. A bite from a venomous snake is rarely deadly, there are about only six fatalities reported in the U.S. every year, but it should always be treated as a medical emergency. Even a bite from a harmless snake can be serious, leading to an allergic reaction or an infection.
If you can’t distinguish between a venomous and non-venomous snake, it can be difficult to know how to respond in the event of a bite. For this reason, you should always treat a snake bite as if it’s venomous. While most snakes in the U.S. are not venomous, several do contain venom. In the U.S., all of the venomous snakes, except for the coral snake, are pit vipers. Pit vipers are distinguishable by a noticeable depression between the eye and nostril. This pit is the heat-sensing area for the snake. While all pit vipers have a triangular head, not all snakes with a triangular head are venomous. Pit vipers include rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads. All vipers have hinged fangs that lie against the roof of their mouth. Vipers can extend their fangs and bite without injecting venom. This is known as a dry bite and is common in human snakebites. Dry bites enable vipers to conserve their venom, which can run out and takes a while to replenish.
2 puncture wounds
If you or someone you are with has been bitten by a snake, more than likely you will know immediately. It’s possible, though, for the bite to happen quickly and for the snake to quietly disappear. To identify a snake bite, look for these general symptoms. First, there will be two puncture wounds, with swelling and redness around the wounds. There will be pain at the bite site. The victim may have difficulty breathing, blurred vision and numbness in the face and limbs. Bites from certain kinds of snakes have some specific symptoms. A bite from a rattlesnake, copperhead or cottonmouth, for example, can cause nausea and vomiting. Meanwhile, a bite from a coral snake can cause convulsions, drooping eyelids and stomach pain. Because the major symptoms may not develop for hours, do NOT make the mistake of thinking you will be fine if the bite area looks good and you are not in a lot of pain. Left untreated, coral snake bites can be deadly.
Seek help immediately
If you’ve been bitten by a snake, you should seek emergency treatment as quickly as possible. Remain calm and move beyond the snake’s striking distance. Call 911, if you can, and note the time of the bite. Remove any jewelry and tight clothing because the area surrounding the bite will likely swell. If possible, position yourself so that the bite is at or below the level of your heart. Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol, which could speed the rate at which your body absorbs the venom. Don’t use a tourniquet or apply ice to the wound. And whatever you do, don’t attempt to cut the wound or attempt to remove the venom. Clean the wound but don’t flush it with water. Instead, cover it with a clean, dry dressing. Don’t waste time trying to capture the snake but rather try to remember its color and shape so that you can describe it, which will help in your treatment. The best thing you can do is get to a hospital. Many hospitals stock anti-venom drugs, which may help you.
When it comes to snakes, common sense is the best precaution to avoid being bitten. Most snakebites result from startling or harassing snakes. Therefore, all snakes should be left alone. When outdoors, you should be aware of your surroundings, especially at night and during warm weather when snakes tend to be more active. For extra precaution, hunters and hikers should wear heavy, ankle-high or higher boots and long pants when walking outdoors in areas inhabited by venomous snakes. Avoid typical places where snakes like to hide, such as patches of tall grass and piled leaves, and rock and woodpiles. Tap ahead of you with a walking stick before entering an area where you can’t see your feet. Snakes will try to avoid you if given enough warning. It’s in the snake’s nature to avoid interaction. If you encounter a snake, give it space to retreat and let it take cover. Don’t provoke a snake, that’s when many serious bites occur.
Trusted by thousands of listeners every week, T. Glenn Pait, M.D., began offering expert advice as the host of UAMS’ “Here’s to Your Health” program in 1996. Dr. Pait began working at UAMS in 1994 and has been practicing medicine for over 20 years.