Snakebite 101

How to avoid getting bit, what to do if you do, and other important tips.

BTG Specialty Pharmaceuticals •

Each year, an estimated 8,000 Americans are bitten by venomous snakes, with the vast majority occuring during the spring and summer months.

This year, that number might grow. As people itch to get outside amid the ongoing pandemic, medical authorities nationwide have reported more snake bites than average: near Los Angeles and in the Bay Area, in Peoria and Phoenix, and in North Carolina, Texas, and Nevada.

Heading outside? Here’s a quick primer on what you should know about venomous snake bites.

What to wear

  • Long pants, ideally made of thick material like denim
  • Boots that cover your ankle or your mid-calf; again, made of thick material, such as leather or hide
  • Protective gloves (if, say, you’re gardening and grabbing things off the ground)

The snakes you should be aware of

In the US, venomous snakes are either pit vipers or coral snakes:

  • Pit vipers make up most of the venomous snakes in the US. They have triangular heads, eyes like slits, and a pit between their nostrils and eyes. Snakes of this type include:
    • Copperheads, which tend to live throughout the Eastern US, but show up as far west as Texas;
    • Cottonmouths, which live in the Southeastern US, especially near water; and
    • Rattlesnakes, of which there are many different species throughout the US.
  • Coral snakes, which reside mostly in Florida and Georgia, are black and red with yellow bands; they also have rounded heads and round pupils.

For a visual guide to the rattlesnakes and other pit vipers in your local area, please visit this interactive map of the United States.


How to avoid snakes

It’s important to know that snakes are not looking to bite you. However, they do blend into their environment – odds are that if you get bit, you’ll have inadvertently stepped on or threatened one. With that in mind, the following precautions may help as you venture outdoors:

  • If possible, don’t travel alone – the more eyes you have casing your surroundings, the less chance there is you’ll accidentally run into a snake
  • Carry a walking stick – this way, you can let a snake know you’re coming before you put your foot down
  • Step on logs and rocks, rather than over them – snakes will seek out cooler locations (i.e. under a log); by staying on higher ground, you can avoid them
  • Stay on trails and steer clear of long grasses, bushes and rocks where snakes may hide
  • Teach children to respect snakes and to leave them alone.

What to do if you see a snake

  • DO NOT approach a snake if you see one. If you see a snake, back away slowly.
  • DO NOT run; snakes use vibrations to help them locate their pray and this may cause the snake to strike.
  • DO NOT attempt to kill a snake that strikes or bites you.
  • NEVER try to poke, handle, corner or harass a snake.

What to do if you get bitten

Typically, a venomous snake bite will cause pain, swelling, and/or burning at the site of the bite (usually within 15-30 minutes); other symptoms may include nausea, shortness of breath, and a general feeling of weakness.

At this point, the first and most important thing to do is call 911 and/or find directions to the nearest hospital. Ideally, the victim should rest, keep the wound at or above heart level, and wait for an ambulance. Oftentimes, however, this isn’t possible, as hikers may be far from the road and outside cell phone range.

Whatever the case, here are some important points to remember:

Time is Tissue!

Delays in treatment can lead to further cellular damage, therefore get the bite victim to the Emergency Room, as quickly as possible!

Remove Constrictions

Remove their jewelry and any tight-fitting clothes, including shoes.

Take Photos to Track Venom Progression

Take a new photo every 15 minutes until you get to the Emergency Room, capturing the bite zone and any red swollen areas. This will help the doctor’s diagnosis on arrival at the Emergency Room.

Elevate Wound

Keep the bitten limb raised to the level of the heart (e.g. drape the arm over the chest).

Keep the victim as still as possible

Any unnecessary increase in heart rate can increase the rate at which the venom spreads.

Do take Tylenol for pain, if needed

But do not use aspirin, ibuprofen or other painkillers that can thin the blood.

What not to do if bitten

There are several myths and misconceptions about the treatment of snake envenomation. Despite what you may have heard, or seen in the movies, please avoid the following, which are unlikely to help and might make the envenomation worse:

  • DO NOT use tourniquets
  • DO Not attempt to cut or apply suction to the bite site
  • DO NOT apply cold packs or ice to the skin
  • DO NOT use NSAIDs (Advil, Motrin and other anti-inflamatory drugs)
  • DO NOT use shock treatments or apply electricity to the bite
  • DO NOT attempt to capture, kill, or transport the snake

If safe to do so, taking a photo of the snake may be helpful for identification, but most emergency rooms prefer you do NOT bring the snake, living or dead, into the hospital.

Want to be really prepared? Download BTG’s free SnakeBite911 app

BTG’s SnakeBite911 app provides life-saving tips, tools, and resources for outdoor enthusiasts and the first responders who, in case of an emergency, will treat them. For instance, the app:

  • Educates users by providing images and facts about North American pit vipers and how to identify them – as well as how to avoid being bitten
  • Searches for snakes that inhabit your state, so you know what to watch for
  • Quickly dials 911 or the Poison Control Center
  • Tracks the bite’s progression with a time-stamped venom tracker tool that includes reminders to capture venom progression, with the ability to add notes to photos taken through the app; taking a photo every 15 minutes will help the doctor make quicker treatment decisions upon arrival
  • Guides treatment with an interactive treatment algorithm that helps assess the bite and direct treatment options dependent on the presence of listed symptoms
  • Provides best practice steps for treatment and aftercare, including a checklist of actions to avoid when treating pit viper bites

Other Helpful Resources:

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