Are all snakebites dangerous?

In the US, most poisonous snakebites are from pit vipers, which includes rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins (also called cottonmouths). Coral snakes are a less common type of poisonous snake found in the US.

Poisonous snakes may not always release venom when they bite, or they may not release enough to be a risk. However, a bite from a poisonous snake must always be treated as a medical emergency. A bite from a nonpoisonous snake can cause an infection (including tetanus) or allergic reaction in some people.

If you have been bitten by any kind of snake, get medical care as soon as possible.

What are the signs and symptoms of a snakebite?

The signs and symptoms can vary, depending on how much venom got into your body, your size, your general health, the location and depth of the bite, and how soon you get treatment.

The signs of any snakebite may include:

  • At least 1 puncture wound from the fangs
  • Bruising, bleeding, and swelling where you were bitten

When a poisonous snake releases venom into the bite, other symptoms may be:

  • A burning feeling that may turn into severe pain
  • Tingling of your lips and tongue
  • A metallic taste in your mouth
  • Very severe muscle cramps or twitching
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Trouble breathing
  • Heavy sweating
  • Weakness or loss of coordination
  • Rapid pulse
  • Nausea and vomiting or diarrhea

The symptoms caused by venom may not appear until hours after a bite even though the poison might be deadly. For this reason, it is always important to get medical care right away for any bite that might be poisonous.

What is the first aid for poisonous snakebites?

All snakebites should be treated as poisonous unless you are sure that the snake was nonpoisonous.

If the snake is poisonous or you are not sure if it is poisonous:

  • Move the person to safety and call for medical help.
  • Keep the person calm and quiet. Keep them from moving too much. Keep the bitten area lower than the person’s heart.
  • Remove any jewelry or tight-fitting clothing that is near the bite.
  • Make sure the bitten area is kept still, for example, by using a splint. Make sure that any bandages are not too tight. Do not apply a tourniquet. It will cut off blood flow and may lead to a loss of the arm or leg.
  • Do not cut the bite. This may cause more injury.
  • Do not try to use a suction device or your mouth to draw venom out of the wound.
  • Do not use ice or any other type of cooling on the bite. This can cause more injury.
  • Do not waste time trying to kill or catch the snake.

What is the first aid for nonpoisonous snakebites?

A nonpoisonous snakebite may be painful, but it is not typically life threatening unless you have an allergy to the saliva of the snake.

If you have any doubts about the type of snake, treat the bite as though it were a poisonous snake bite.

To apply first aid for nonpoisonous snakebites:

  • Wash the bite with soap and water.
  • Put a bandage on the wound, if needed.
  • Make sure your tetanus shots are up-to-date. If it has been 5 or more years since your last tetanus shot, get a shot as soon as possible, preferably the same day as the bite.
  • Get medical care if:
    • The bite wound is bleeding and does not stop bleeding.
    • Over the next few days you have signs of infection, such as new or worse redness, swelling, pain, warmth, or drainage.

What is the medical treatment for poisonous snakebites?

If you have been bitten by a poisonous snake and venom was released into the bite, you will be given antivenin or antivenom by IV. It is best to receive this medicine within 4 to 6 hours of a bite.

You may be tested for an allergy to the antivenin before it is given to you. You will be watched very closely for several hours for reactions to the bite or antivenin.

Snakebites can cause bleeding problems. Your healthcare provider will close large, deep, or jagged wounds with skin glue, tape strips, stitches, or staples. If you have not had a tetanus shot in the last 5 years, your healthcare provider may give you a tetanus shot.

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent snakebites?

If possible, avoid areas where there may be snakes. Snakebites tend to happen most during warm weather and when the weather is beginning to cool off. When temperatures drop during the evening and night, snakes are attracted to places that hold heat from the day.

Before you visit, hike, or camp in a new area:

  • Learn about the snakes that may live in the area.
  • Learn the proper first aid for a snakebite.
  • Know where the closest medical facility is in case of an emergency.

Take precautions when you visit snake regions:

  • Wear long pants and leather or rubber boots.
  • Stay on hiking paths.
  • Be cautious and alert when you are around wood piles, tall grass or brush, rocky areas, swamps, or holes that may contain snakes.
  • Take a cell phone with you.
  • Leave snakes alone. Do not try to kill a snake or get a closer look. Stay at least 6 feet away from any snakes you see.

If you have a pet snake, you are at greater risk for being bitten. Handle the snake with care.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-05-27
Last reviewed: 2014-07-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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