Anyone who has spent any time in the woods has wrestled with the idea that they may encounter a venomous snake during their trip. Almost all of the lower 48 states in the continental U.S. have at least one species of venomous snake, and the closer to the equator you travel, the more species you will find.
There are two families of venomous snakes in North America. The majority of the species are classified within the Family Crotalidae, which are the pit vipers. This group includes all species of rattlesnakes and massasaugas (Crotalis spp. and Sistrurus spp., respectively), cottonmouths (also called water mocassin; Agkistrodon piscivorus), copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), and coral snakes (Micrurus spp.).
Given the number of people who encounter snakes annually versus the number of people bitten by venomous snakes, the chances of being bitten are rare. However, it is good to know what you need to do in case you or someone you are with is bitten by a venomous snake. Venomous snake bites are very serious and could lead to paralysis and death if left untreated. Below are the general steps that should be taken by a person bitten by a venomous snake in the U.S.
1. Before leaving on your outing, do an Internet search for the venomous snakes in your area. Search for pictures and good descriptions, and then print them out as a guide.
2. If you are the one who is bitten, try to identify the snake that bit you. This is important information that Poison Control will need to know to assure you receive the correct antivenom.
As a general rule, if it has a triangular head, it is in the pit viper family. Coral snakes are very easy to identify. They key is remembering how to tell them apart from the coral snakes mimics, such as the scarlet kingsnakes and various species of milksnake (Lampropeltis spp.). Remember this simple rhyme, and you will remember the difference between the two: “Red and yellow, kill a fellow. Red and black, friend of Jack.” The coral snake mimics have red rings touching the black rings down the length of their body (yellow, red, black, yellow, red, black, etc.). Coral snakes have yellow rings in every other space in the sequence (red, yellow, black, yellow, red, yellow, black, yellow, etc.).
3. It is also important to inspect the bite, which will be different if you were bitten by a pit viper than if bitten by a coral snake. The pit vipers have hinged front fangs that lie pointing towards the back of their mouth when it is closed but then spring into the downward position once the mouth is opened. They inject a hemotoxin, which breaks down blood and tissues. Coral snakes inject a neurotoxin, which attacks the nervous system. While a more serious threat than the pit vipers’ hemotoxin, the coral snake is not able to deliver an immediate injection of the neurotoxin into the bloodstream. It is a rear-fanged snake, thus, it has to chew on its victim for several minutes to work the venom into the bloodstream.
4. Get your snakebite kit. Throw it away. The best snakebite kit in the world is a set of car keys to a car that is not far away. The victim should lie down immediately after being bitten and try not to panic. Panic and stress increase the heartrate and will cause blood to pump faster through their body, thus pushing the venom through their body faster, causing more damage to more places within the body. Do not, under any circumstances, raise that body part higher than the heart. This also increases the speed at which the venom reaches other parts of the body.
5. DO NOT APPLY A TOURNIQUET! I cannot stress this enough. People have lost limbs because of this. If you have been bitten by a pit viper, which comprise the vast majority of venomous snakebites in the U.S., applying a tourniquet will restrict the venom to the portion of your body you have tied off. This will simply allow the venom to eat away at your limb, which could lead to amputation. Only if it is a coral snake bite can you apply a loose tourniquet with a cloth handkerchief or an elastic band. You should be able to fit one or two fingers under the tourniquet, or else you have tied it too tightly.
6. Get to a hospital ASAP! If you have someone with you, have them drive you. Only attempt to drive yourself if you are by yourself or with someone not legally allowed to be driving. Time is a factor – once at the hospital, doctors have to contact Poison Control, who have to secure the proper vials of antivenom and travel to the hospital. This can take a couple of hours, so have someone call ahead to the hospital, explain the situation and tell them what snake species the victim was bitten by. Once Poison Control arrives, they will administer antivenom until the victim’s blood is regulated.
WHAT NOT TO DO:
1. Cut the area and suck out the venom.
This doesn’t work. Once in the bloodstream, there is no sucking it out. You may actually hit an artery in your panic to cut yourself, and then you’d have a much larger problem than just a snakebite.
2. Apply a tourniquet.
As explained above, this restricts the blood so it circulates just within the limb that is tied off. Thus, the venom is concentrated locally, doing much more damage to one body part. The risk of applying a tourniquet is amputation of that body part.
3. Panic, stress, or run.
As stated previously, these activities increase the heartrate, which increases the flow of the venom through your body. This is not good.
Follow these simple guidelines if you are ever bitten by a venomous snake: stay calm, try to identify the snake that bit you, and get to a hospital as soon as humanly possible. These steps provide the simplest way to reduce your risk of permanent tissue damage, nervous system damage, or even death.