Snake bites occur when a snake bites the skin. They are medical emergencies if the snake is venomous.
Venomous animals account for a large number of deaths and injuries, worldwide. Snakes alone are estimated to inflict 2.5 million venomous bites each year, resulting in about 125,000 deaths. The actual number may be much larger. Southeast Asia, India, Brazil, and areas of Africa have the most deaths due to snakebite.
All snakes will bite when threatened or surprised, but most will usually avoid people if possible and only bite as a last resort. Snakes found in and near water are often mistaken as being poisonous. Most species of snake are harmless and many bites are not life-threatening, but unless you are absolutely sure that you know the species, treat it seriously.
- Keep the person calm, reassuring them that bites can be effectively treated in an emergency room. Restrict movement, and keep the affected area below heart level to reduce the flow of venom.
- If you have a pump suction device (such as that made by Sawyer), follow the manufacturer’s directions.
- Remove any rings or constricting items because the affected area may swell. Create a loose splint to help restrict movement of the area.
- If the area of the bite begins to swell and change color, the snake was probably poisonous.
- Monitor the person’s vital signs temperature, pulse, rate of breathing, and blood pressure if possible. If there are signs of shock (such as paleness), lay the person flat, raise the feet about a foot, and cover the person with a blanket.
- Get medical help right away.
- Bring in the dead snake only if this can be done safely. Do not waste time hunting for the snake, and do not risk another bite if it is not easy to kill the snake. Be careful of the head when transporting it a snake can actually bite for up to an hour after it’s dead (from a reflex).
What is the treatment for a venomous snake bite?
There are two phases in the treatment of snake bites.
- The emergency treatment on site and during transport to an appropriate health care facility.
- Tthe health care facility stabilizes the patient, administers antivenin if deemed necessary, and provides supportive treatment.
Phase one of snake bite treatment
In the past there have been many home remedies and treatments, along with snake bite kits and other treatment methods, many of which have been shown to make the effects of the snake bite worse. Consequently, the CDC has issued guidelines, used after the threat of additional bites to the patient or others is eliminated, about what to DO and whatNOT TO DO if a snakebite occurs. The following are the recommendations made by the CDC:
- Seek medical attention as soon as possible (dial 911 or call local Emergency Medical Services)
- Try to remember the color and shape of the snake, which can help with identification and treatment of the snake bite.
- Keep still and calm. This can slow down the spread of venom.
- Inform your supervisor (if the bite occurs at work).
- Apply first aid if you cannot get to the hospital right away.
- Lay or sit down with the bite below the level of the heart.
- Wash the bite with soap and water.
- Cover the bite with a clean, dry dressing.
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 if bitten, rather seek immediate medical attention.
- Do not apply a tourniquet.
- Do not slash the wound with a knife.
- Do not suck out the venom.
- Do not apply ice or immerse the wound in water.
- Do not drink alcohol as a painkiller.
- Do not drink caffeinated beverages.
Not included in the CDC recommendation is the bite of the Australian elapid snake, also termed a sea snake, which is emergently treated with a pressure bandage at the bite site with splinting and extremity immobilization. Others suggest no use of electric shocks for any snake bite.
Phase two of snake bite treatment
The second phase of treatment consists of stabilization and supportive care, and when medically indicated, administration of antitoxin (antivenin) specific for the snake species and a tetanus booster vaccine. A good practice is to call your local poison control center or the national Poison Help Line (1-800-222-1222), and also to consult a toxicologist and a surgeon to help care for the patient. Certain patients may require surgical treatment and admission to the hospital.
The treatment of non-venomous snake bites includes local wound careat the site of the bite, removing snake teeth if left in the bite site, attending to any trauma at the bite site, and a tetanus booster if needed. Some wounds may become infected and require additional treatment with antibiotics.
- Avoid areas where snakes may be hiding, such as under rocks and logs.
- Even though most snakes are not poisonous, avoid picking up or playing with any snake unless you have been properly trained.
- If you hike often, consider buying a snake bite kit (available from hiking supply stores). Do not use older snake bite kits, such as those containing razor blades and suction bulbs.
- Don’t provoke a snake. That is when many serious snake bites occur.
- 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.
- When hiking in an area known to have snakes, wear long pants and boots if possible.