— This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 16 April 2010, was last revised on 24 April 2016. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 11:04(08).
NOTE: This post is especially written for those who wish to prepare themselves, before the fact, for the possibility that they or someone in their company may someday become bitten by a snake. Once the bite occurs, panic may set in and reading this with a reflective demeanor will be practically impossible. Of course, if the bite has just occurred, it is still best to be reading this in an effort to do the right thing, so read on. But I encourage you to become informed on Snakebite First Aid before the need to make use of this advice arises.
FIRST, ASSESS THE SITUATION TO SEE IF ANY OF THE FOLLOWING APPLY:
(a) You did not see the snake that inflicted the bite, but the bite wound consists of two obvious bite (fang) puncture marks;
(b) The bitten individual’s immune system is compromised or that person is presently under treatment for a serious medical condition AND is now experiencing unusual medical symptoms of any kind; OR
(c) It is known without further research that the bite was inflicted by a venomous snake, which in North America would be a pit viper (rattlesnake, copperhead, or cottonmouth) or a coral snake.
I. It is best to Assume the Snake is Venomous:
IF ONE OR MORE OF THE ABOVE-MENTIONED CONDITIONS APPLY, ASSUME THE SNAKE WAS VENOMOUS, AND SEEK EMERGENCY MEDICAL TREATMENT FOR THE BITTEN INDIVIDUAL AT ONCE. A significant likelihood exists that the bite will result in a true medical emergency. Thus, time is of the essence to reduce the damage caused by the venom. Don’t stop to try to suck out the venom by mouth or with a suction device (studies show that snake venom is rapidly absorbed into the tissues once injected into the body, thus there isn’t any free venom left in the bite wound to suck out.) The most important first aid for a venomous snake bite is to transport the bitten individual to a medical facility as soon as possible.
But do it right! There is a right and a wrong way to seek medical attention immediately after a venomous snake bite occurs. Below are a few essential elements of THE RIGHT WAY:
— CALL 911
— CALM DOWN
— REMOVE RINGS, BRACELETS, OTHER CONSTRICTING HARDWARE
— IMMOBILIZE THE BITTEN LIMB
— FOLLOW EMS INSTRUCTIONS, BUT MOVE SLOWLY; DON’T HURRY
(1). Call 911. The best way to transport the bitten person to a medical facility with the proper antivenin and the doctors and nurses who are familiar with the handling of snake bites is in an ambulance. If you are in the wilderness, that ambulance may turn out to be an EMS helicopter, so don’t assume the remoteness of your location requires trekking the bitten individual out any further than the nearest clearing where a helicopter can safely land. Most of the time EMS is only a few minutes away, and the paramedics on board, after arriving at the scene of the bite, should know how to properly package the bitten individual for transportation to the most appropriate medical facility nearby.
Note: You won’t save time by driving yourself or the bitten individual to a hospital if, when you get them there, it turns out that you unknowingly passed by another well-equipped medical facility on the way, or the hospital you went to is not equipped to handle snake bites and it becomes necessary to transport the bitten individual elsewhere.
(2). Calm down. Yes, that sounds like an impossibility, but do the best you can. And if you are a care-giver, not the person bitten, it is just as important for you to calm down as for the person with the bite. A calm demeanor is contagious. Exhibit one, so others will be less panicky. Similarly, a frightened demeanor is even more contagious, and because fright should be lessened as much as possible, such a demeanor should be assiduously avoided.
Remember this: Snake bites rarely result in death or permanent injury, but anxiety and excitement, induced by fear, increase the risk of complications and worsen the damage caused by the venom, while a calm demeanor helps reduce the spread of venom in the affected tissues and ultimately aids the bitten individual’s recovery;
(3). Remove Rings and Bracelets: Before doing anything else, before EMS arrives and before attempting to transport the bitten individual, stop long enough to remove any constricting hardware from the individual’s body. Rings, bracelets, etc, should be removed before any swelling occurs, or you will encounter serious difficulties from such constrictions once swelling commences; and remember that a bite anywhere on the body can cause systemic swelling anywhere else on the body, so remove all rings and bracelets, etc., immediately after a snake bite regardless of the location of the bite. If swelling is already so bad that you cannot remove rings or bracelets normally (by sliding them off the affected appendage), find a ring cutter and remove them with that device:
(4). Immobilize the bitten limb: i.e., immobilize that portion of the body where the bite occurred; exertion of that portion of the body helps spread the venom beyond the bite; be creative — MacGyver-style — in this; for example, if you are hiking alone on a wilderness trail, do your best not to put weight on the bitten leg or foot, but instead use two walking sticks as a set of crutches so that a bitten leg or foot will not have to be employed to transport you out of the wilderness.
(5). Follow EMS Instructions, But Move slowly, Do not hurry. Physical exertion helps spread the venom through the blood and lymphatic system. If you are out in the deep wilderness, alone and without a cellular phone and thus cannot call 911, you obviously won’t have EMS instructions to follow — in such a situation, Walk, Don’t Run, to the nearest form of transportation. If in the company of others, and none in the group has a cellular phone on which to call 911 (or, more likely, special circumstances such as a major regional emergency that has tied up all the EMS resources temporarily), send someone to the nearest phone to call 911, and — if the 911 operator states that EMS has been dispatched to your location — wait at the scene for help to arrive. If for some reason the bitten individual absolutely cannot remain at the present location (e.g., a rain storm is in process or recently took place, and the bitten individual is in a canyon subject to flash flooding, or a raging fire is threatening the area) able-bodied companions should immediately carry the bitten individual out to the nearest place of safety.
II. Otherwise, it is Safe to Assume that the Snake is Non-Venomous.
But with one caveat: you should monitor the bitten person closely to see if any evidence of the above-mentioned conditions show up within the next few hours. If they do, assume the bite was from a venomous snake and proceed according to the steps described in the preceding section.
But what if you are bitten by a non-venomous snake? Such bites can be quite bloody and painful, especially if the snake is an old specimen with relatively large teeth and an attitude. Furthermore, certain Texas snakes commonly thought of as “non-venomous” are technically venomous to some degree, as they have slightly toxic saliva that can get into a bite wound and produce tenderness and swelling, and even more serious complications in susceptible individuals. Others, like the eastern hog-nosed snake, have rear-facing fangs deep in their throats that cannot injure an adult unless a finger or other body part is pushed deeply into the the snake’s throat (possible, but not likely). A child, of course, might get a hand down an eastern hog-nosed snake’s throat, past its rear-facing fangs; if that happens, it will probably end badly for the snake, and could end badly for the child, as well.
Obviously, there are no hard-and-fast rules on these kinds of bites, but here are some suggestions for you to, shall we say, “chew” on:
(1) Don’t allow a child–or an adult with impaired mental capacity–to handle a “non-venomous” snake; bad things can happen, to the handler and to the snake;
(2) Never encourage or allow a snake to bite you or another person, even if the snake is one of the “harmless” species–I posit this rather commonsense bit of trivia for those who may think getting bitten by a non-venomous snake would be cool–you know who you are–and to possibly dissuade others from indulging in such foolishness; but, if a snake bite occurs,
(3) Remove the snake from the bite wound as soon as the bite occur to lessen the risk of secondary infection or complications from interactions with the snake’s saliva;
(4) Let the bite wound bleed for a time sufficient to cleanse the wound of the snake’s saliva and any contaminants the snake’s teeth may have introduced into the wound; generally the wound will stop bleeding once all contaminants have been cleared;
(5) Wash the wound thoroughly, after the wound stops bleeding, using antiseptic soap and clean water;
(6) Monitor the wound for signs of swelling or unusual tenderness;
(7) Seek medical attention at once if swelling or unusual tenderness develops, or if you begin to experience any other unusual medical signs or symptoms such as diminished mental capacity, high or low blood pressure, discoloration or bruising at the wound site; you may be experiencing a reaction to the snake’s saliva.
Related Links on BugsInTheNews:
- North American Snake Markings & Coloration Guide.
- Ophidian Dentition — Snake Teeth & Fangs — Morphology & Specialization
- Snake Anatomy, Physiology, and Taxonomy.
- Snake Exclusion — How to Snake-proof your Yard and Home.
- Snake Repellents — How, and How Well, do They Work?
- Snakebite First Aid.
- Snakes, Rodents, & Droughts.
- What is Meant by “A Reasonably Snake-Free Environment”?
- Southern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix); Dana T., Allen, Texas–05.02.09
- Broad-Banded Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus): Steve B., Round Rock TX–2 July 2009
- Cottonmouths & Copperheads in Travis and Harris Counties, Texas — June to August, 2010
- Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma, Troost 1836); Tammy D., Santa Fe, TX — 28 Aug 2011
- Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma, Troost 1836) juvenile snakebite; Margaret Archer, Manvel, TX — 5 Sep 2011
- Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox, Baird & Girard, 1853), Cedar Creek, TX — 22 Oct 2010
References to Scientific Articles, Books, and Papers:
- Arikan, H. et al. 2008. Electrophoretic characterisation of the venom samples obtained from various Anatolian snakes(Serpentes: Colubridae, Viperidae, Elapidae). N.W. J. Zool. Vol. 4, No. 1, pp.16-28.
- Birchard, G. F., et al., 1984. Foetal-Maternal Blood Respiratory Properties of an Ovoviviparous Snake; the Cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus. J. exp. Biol. 108, 247-25
- Chao, B. H., et al. 1989. Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus platelet aggregation inhibitor: A potent inhibitor of platelet activation. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA Vol. 86, pp. 8050-8054
- Chippaux, J. P., et al. 1991. Snake Venom Variability: Methods of study, results, and Interpretation. Toxicon Vol. 29, No. I I , pp. 1279-1303.
- Conant, R., and J. T. Collins, 1998. Reptiles and Amphibians — Eastern/Central North America, Third Ed. Peterson Field Guides. Houghton Mifflin Co.
- Cundall, D. 2009. Viper Fangs: Functional Limitations of Extreme Teeth. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 82(1):63–79.
- Deufel, A., and D. Cundall. 2004. Functional plasticity of the venom delivery system in snakes with a focus on the poststrike prey release behavior. Zoologischer Anzeiger 245 (2006) 249–267
- Gloyd, H. K., and R. Conant. 1990. Snakes of the Agkistrodon Complex, a Monographic Review. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles.
- Grachevca, E., et al., 2010. Molecular Basis for Infrared Detection by Snakes. Nature, 15 April 2010.
- Greene, H. W., 1997. Snakes: the Evolution of Mystery in Nature. University of California Press.
- Schulz, K., 1996. A Monograph of the Colubrid Snakes of the Genus Elaphe Fitzinger. Koeltz Scientific Books.
- Tennant, A., 1998. A Field Guide to Texas Snakes, Second Ed. Gulf Publishing.
- Weinstein, S. A., et al. 1994.Reptile Venom Glands — Form, Function, and Future. Handbook of Venoms and Toxins of Reptiles. CRC Press.
- Werler, J. E., and J. R. Dixon, 2000. Texas Snakes. University of Texas Press.
- World Health Organization. 2002. Management of Snakebite and Research. WHO SEA-RES-2.
- Zaidan, F. III, 2002. Variation in cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma) resting metabolic rates. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A 134 (2003) 511–523
- Zamudio, K. R., et al., 2000. Fang tip spread, puncture distance, and suction for snake bite. Toxicon 38 (2000) 723 – 728
— Questions? Corrections? Comments? BUG ME RIGHT NOW! Telephone Jerry directly at 512-331-1111, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also leave a comment in the space provided below.