If you often spend time in the wilderness or live in snake-inhabited areas, it’s important to learn the potential dangers of venomous snakes and how to effectively treat snakebites. While rare, snakebites do happen and have the potential to be fatal. Even a bite from a non-venomous snake can cause an allergic reaction or infection in some people. However, with the correct precautions and treatment, you can prevent serious injury. Taking a Wilderness First Aid course can help prepare you for how to identify and treat venomous snake bites in the wilderness.
According to the CDC, the most common venomous snakebites in the United States are caused by rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouth/water moccasins or coral snakes. It’s crucial to know how to effectively identify venomous snakes and what snakes are native to the area you’ll be exploring. Some non-venomous snakes can be mistaken for venomous ones and vice versa due their coloration and patterns.
Symptoms of Venomous Snake Bites
Signs or symptoms of a snake bite may vary depending on the type of snake responsible. However, the following are common symptoms of venomous snakebites:
- Bloody wound discharge
- Redness, swelling, bruising, bleeding, or blistering around the bite
- Severe pain and tenderness at the site of the bite
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Labored breathing, or in extreme cases, breathing may stop altogether
- Rapid heart rate, weak pulse, low blood pressure
- Disturbed vision
- Metallic, mint, or rubber taste in the mouth
- Increased salivation and sweating
- Numbness or tingling around face, mouth, and/or limbs
- Altered mental state
- Muscle twitching
Treatment for Snakebites
If you or a companion are bitten by a snake, call for emergency medical attention right away by dialing 911 or calling the local Emergency Medical Services. Seeking immediate medical help can be crucial for the treatment of a venomous snake. Antivenom is the treatment for serious snake bites. The sooner antivenom can be given, the sooner irreversible damage from the venom can be stopped.
If possible, take a photo of the snake responsible from a safe distance as this can help with treatment. If you are unable to take a photo and are unsure what kind of snake it is, make a mental note of what the snake looks like.
While waiting for emergency medical help:
- Wash the bite with soap and water.
- Remove jewelry and constrictive clothing in case of swelling.
- Cover the bite with a clean, dry dressing.
- Keep the bitten limb still and lower than the heart.
- Remain calm and try to move as little as possible to prevent the venom from circulating.
- Draw a circle around the affected area and mark the time of the initial bite.
- Monitor breathing and heart rate
If you are bitten by a snake, do NOT do any of the following:
- Do not pick up the snake or try to trap it.
- Do not wait for symptoms to appear before getting medical care.
- Do not try to suck the venom out.
- Do not apply a tourniquet.
- Do not cut the wound.
- Do not apply ice or immerse the wound in water.
- Do not drink alcohol or caffeinated drinks.
- Do not take pain relievers like aspirin or NSAIDs like ibuprofen as they worsen bleeding.
Depending on the particular snakebite and the severity of the venom/wound, emergency medical services may give you:
- Antibiotics to prevent or treat infections
- Medicine to treat pain
- Antivenom depends on the type of snake that bit you and the severity of your symptoms
While you unfortunately may not be able to prevent all snakebites, there are some precautions you can take to reduce your chances of being bitten by a snake.
- If you come across a snake in the wilderness, leave it alone and slowly back away out of striking distance.
- If possible, sleep off the ground in a hammock or camp bed.
- Remain on hiking paths and avoid walking through tall grasses where snakes may not be visible.
- Wear boots, socks, and long trousers when walking in undergrowth.
- Keep hands and feet out of areas you cannot see.
- Always use a flashlight or torch when walking at night.
- Avoid marshy wetlands and vegetation along rivers where snakes may be hiding.
- Open and shake out sleeping bags, footwear, and clothing before use to remove snakes or other animals and insects that may have taken refuge inside.