For thousands of years, snakes have been associated with evil. They slither, hiss, and stare with unblinking eyes. One even deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. So, it's no wonder many people have a fear of snakes, which is called herpetophobia.
But are your snake fears justified? Every year in the United States, venomous snakes bite about 8,000 people. This is more common between April and October when more people are outside and active. But out of all those snakebites, 30 years of data show that no more than 12 people have died from snakebites in any single year.
While deaths from snakebite are extremely rare, snakebites do happen, and every one of them should be considered a potentially life-threatening emergency. In this slideshow, discover what snakes to watch out for, what you can do to prevent snakebites, why snake venom works the way it does, and what to do if you are bitten.
Snakes don't usually have any reason to harm people. They would usually prefer to slither away than to attack. Like many other wild animals, though, when venomous snakes feel threatened by humans, they can strike.
One unusual trait of snakes is that they can control how much venom to release into their targets. Sometimes they bite without releasing any venom at all. At other times, they may release enough to kill.
Recommended treatments for snakebites have changed a lot in recent years. Some of the outdated advice has turned out to be unreliable, and we'll cover those in the next slide. But first you should know what really does help if you are bitten by a venomous snake.
A snakebite victim should have the wound lightly bandaged such that a person can easily slide a finger or two between the bandage and the skin. If it's wrapped any tighter, the venom could impair blood flow and increase the risk of killing off healthy body tissue.
Make sure the victim's jewelry and tight clothing are removed if they are anywhere near the site of the bite. Snake venom tends to cause people to swell up, so jewelry and tight clothes will only cause problems.
Keep the victim very still. The less their blood pumps, the shorter the distance the venom can travel. You can also help stop the spread of venom by keeping the location of the snakebite below the heart. To help prevent shock from setting in, try to keep the victim calm.
The most important thing to do for someone who has been bitten is to get them to an emergency room. The sooner a victim receives emergency treatment, the less time the venom will have to do damage.
In the past, some bad ideas about treating snakebites were recommended. After studying the evidence though, scientists have determined these snakebite treatments don't work—and in some case, they might even make things worse.
What Doesn’t Work
- Sucking out the venom. No study has shown that trying to suck venom out of a snakebite helps the victim.
- Cutting across the area of the bite. The idea is to relieve the venom and the swelling, but it's not actually helpful, and can cause more harm in the long run.
- Collecting a dead snake for examination. You should try to identify the snake that bit the victim, but do not collect it, even if it's dead. Dead snakes have been known to bite by reflex.
- Applying a tourniquet. Tight-fitting bandages, including tourniquets, were once thought to slow the spread of the venom. But doing so actually traps the venom in one place and limits blood flow, which can cause more harm.
- Ice. Don't ice the bite, heat it, or apply any ointments or chemicals. The only reliable treatment for a snakebite is antivenom from a hospital. That means no aspirin either, which can lead to excessive bleeding.
- Alcohol or caffeine. These can cause your body to distribute venom more quickly.
Antivenom is the only proven method of effectively treating a venomous snakebite. Ideally, a snakebite victim should receive antivenom within four hours of a bite. But it is beneficial even after the four-hour window expires--up to 24 hours after being bitten.
Antivenom is collected from horses who have been infected with a small amount of venom. It is then administered slowly through an IV drip. This is done to make sure the patient doesn't respond with an allergic reaction. Medical professionals are advised to monitor the progress of antivenom for at least 12 hours. A tetanus shot will also be considered, as tetanus infection can also be caused from snakebites even if no venom is released.
Doctors are also advised to take a blood sample. The blood sample will tell your medical team how many blood platelets you have in your system, how well your liver is functioning, and a variety of other useful clues about your medical state.
You may experience an adverse reaction to antivenom, which typically occurs four to 10 days after receiving treatment. This is called serum sickness, and in rare cases it can be deadly. Watch for signs of rashes, joint pain, itching, and malaise.
Far and away the most common venomous snake to bite humans in the United States is one that belongs to the pit viper family. Pit viper bites make up 99 percent of reported snakebites in fact. This family includes:
- rattlesnakes (including sidewinders),
- cottonmouths (also called water moccasins), and
Among all pit vipers, the rattlesnake is the one most likely to bite you. They're also responsible for almost all reported deaths from snakebite.
Although far less common, the bite of the venomous coral snake (a coral snake is not a pit viper) is potentially more serious. Fortunately, coral snake bites are rare.
Pit vipers may not look much different from any other snake to the untrained eye. They're long, they slither, and they look dangerous--but that's all true of many other snakes too. What truly separates a pit viper from safer snakes are the small, heat-spotting holes in their faces between the eyes and nostrils.
Then again, if you're close enough to spot those heat-sensitive pits, it may already be too late. Fortunately, there are a few other telltale signs of pit vipers to watch out for. Pit vipers have triangular heads. Their pupils are narrow and oval-shaped (think of a cat's eyes). They also have fangs that are long and hollow and fold back into their mouths.
Fang marks are an unmistakable sign of any snakebite. These look like two marks that are very clear, and sometimes come with other marks from smaller teeth as well. (Every now and then snakes leave one or three fang marks, but this is rare). However, fang marks alone can't show whether the snake released any venom--just that you've been bitten.
If a snake injects its venom, reactions can vary from mild to severe depending on where the bite occurred and how much venom is released, among other factors. Children are particularly at risk due to their small size. If the snake released venom, the site of the wound will often swell within five minutes. It causes extreme pain as well as bruising. But because of the chemical makeup of pit viper snake venom, the site of the wound is sometimes symptomless other than the fang marks.
Other symptoms of pit viper bites include oozing at the bite, vomiting, weakness, dizziness, and abnormally low blood pressure. Without treatment it can result in death.
Snake venom comes in different types, and even snakes of the same family sometimes vary in venom potency. When it comes to the two most deadly snake types in America, though, there are two venoms you need to be familiar with.
Pit Viper Venom
With the exception of a handful of Mojave rattlers, pit vipers in the United States use a hemotoxic venom. Hemotoxic venom attacks the blood and body tissue. "Hemo" means blood, and this toxin is known for attacking red blood cells. The toxin mirrors your body's natural blood-clotting agents, and some types quickly clot the blood, often inside the kidneys. Other types cause the blood not to clot, leaving victims with uncontrolled bleeding.
But hemotoxin doesn't stop at harming blood cells. It attacks other tissue as well, including internal organs, where it can lead to inflammation and, potentially, death. For the pit viper, the advantage of hemotoxin is that it actually breaks down and digests its meal before its prey dies, which helps explain why this venom symptoms comes on slowly.
Coral Snake Venom
The coral snake's venom is the second deadliest in the world (the first is the black mamba). Unlike pit vipers, coral snakes use a neurotoxin to subdue their victims. Instead of attacking blood and tissue, neurotoxins attack the nerve tissue. Effects come on slowly, and the bite may not be particularly painful. But after a few hours, symptoms develop like slurred speech, muscle weakness, blurred vision, and difficulty swallowing and breathing. Total paralysis can set in in as little as 12 hours.
If you live outside the desert in the United States, you may think you're safe from rattlesnakes. Think again. These dangerous reptiles can be found almost everywhere in the continental U.S., though they are especially common in the Southwest.
Where do Rattlesnakes Live?
Although in the movies they always seem to be hiding in desert rocks or slithering along the sand, rattlesnakes actually live in a variety of habitats. They can be found on beaches, in forests, swamps, and grasslands.
Like all reptiles, rattlesnakes are cold-blooded. They're inactive in cold weather and have to find a way to keep their body temperatures warmer at night. They do this by forming dens (areas where snakes gather together) and swarming balls, (several snakes intertwined), which keep rattlers from freezing; in addition, the snakes may form swarms during mating.
Cottonmouths, water moccasins, trapjaws, swamp adders, call them what you will, but each name describes the same slow-moving, venomous snake. Cottonmouths prefer wet habitats like ponds and swamps. Sometimes their watery homes dry up though, sending these snakes to search for somewhere new. They can be found in the south, typically from Georgia east to Virginia.
When threatened, cottonmouths coil and open their mouths, revealing their fearsome fangs. For those careless or reckless enough to be bitten, the venom may be the least of your worries. Cottonmouths eat carrion, which is meat from animals that have already died. That means they tend to be swarming with microbes that can complicate and prolong the effects of an attack even after the antivenom has done its work.
Copperheads stand out, provided they aren't hiding. And that's the trouble--they hide rather well. The distinctive hourglass pattern on their brown or tan bodies provides excellent camouflage in their native habitat. It also clearly distinguishes them from similar looking but harmless snakes, provided you learn to recognize it. That's a skill you will want to develop if you spend much time outdoors in the eastern or central U.S. Copperheads can be found on dry, rocky hillsides in mountainous regions. But along the coast these venomous snakes tend to prefer swamp margins and hardwood forests.
Copperheads do have venomous bites, but their venom is relatively weak. That's why human deaths from these snakes are extraordinarily rare. Still, they bite often enough to rank as the leading cause of snakebites in the southeast. They typically don't bite unless harassed or threatened, so by keeping your distance, you should be safe.
If you need to distinguish a coral snake from a venom-free one, remember this rhyme:
"Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. Red touch black, venom lack."
That rhyme is useful, because the coral snake has several look-alikes, including the harmless and common king snake. But true coral snakes have bright, visible bands of red sandwiched between yellow bands.
Coral Snake Habitat
Coral snakes are found in the southeastern United States. They like sandy places, woods, and marshlands. They spend their time mostly burrowed beneath the ground or hiding in leaf piles.
Coral snakes are smaller than some other venomous snakes in the U.S. Adults grow to about two feet in length.
You may not realize you're in danger after first being bitten by a venomous coral snake. They tend to cause little or no pain. Coral snakes have small fixed fangs (fangs are not retractable) and a small mouth; humans are usually bitten when they try to pick up the snake with their hands. The venom is released with a chewing motion. And if the snake has released venom, its effects may not be known for another 12 hours. But after some time has passed, the effects soon become clear.
When a person has not received antivenom, a coral snakes toxin eventually begins to show itself by causing disruptions between the chemical back and forth conversations from the muscles to the brain. This can cause double vision and it can make it difficult to speak, but far more dangerous is the venom's ability to paralyze its victims. This can eventually cause a coral snakebite victim to die of either cardiac or respiratory failure.
Because of their bright colors, children are tempted to pick up (and be bitten) by a coral snake.
Here's a snake you're not going to find far from the ocean. But if you spend your time at sea, or near the shore, it's possible you could run into a yellow-bellied sea snake, the snake with the world's widest habitat range. People sometimes find this venomous seafarer along the coast of Southern California and the Hawaiian Islands.
Yellow-bellied sea snakes usually stay in the ocean. But they can come ashore when they become stranded by strong winds. Either on land or ocean, these snakes who are usually peaceful can become deadly when threatened, injecting a potent nerve toxin usually reserved for the fish it eats.
This has got to be on the list of a parent's worst nightmares. A venomous snakebite is hard on anyone, but because of their small size, children are especially vulnerable. When snakes bite children, you should follow the same basic advice that adults do in the same situation--don't let victims move more than they have to, try to keep the wound below the heart, remove tight clothing, watches, or other jewelry, and try to remember what the snake looked like.
Here are some tips for keeping children safe from dangerous snakes:
- Remind children to be watchful while climbing rocks.
- Prohibit your children from sticking their fingers and toes anywhere they cannot see. Snakes often prefer to remain hidden and can be startled by curious young hands and feet.
- Tell kids not to get close to snakes or try to catch them.
- Keep your kids away from tall grass, and tell them to stay on hiking paths.
Even if your odds of death are fairly low, nobody wants to go through the agony of a venomous snakebite. To stay out of danger, follow these tips for snakebite prevention:
- Remember the buddy system while hiking. You know what's worse than being bitten by a deadly snake? Being bitten and having nobody nearby to help. Stick with a hiking buddy and if bitten, ask your partner to take a photo of the snake if it is safe to do so.
- Don't absentmindedly collect rocks or firewood. Before you collect these things, scan for snakes. These are the kinds of spots where snakes like to wait in ambush for their prey, so tread carefully.
- Stay on trails and away from tall grass. Because snakes are predators, they like to lie hidden in wait of their prey. Tall grass is a favorite hiding spot, so stick to cleared away areas where it's more difficult for them to hide.
- Mind your hiking gear. Don't go barefoot or leave your feet or legs exposed in any way in snake territory. Instead, go out with long pants and boots to help protect from those piercing fangs.
- Don't ever touch a snake, even a dead one. Dead snakes can still bite by reflex, and a snake may only appear to be dead while it is actually lying motionless.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
- Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images
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- LA Dawson / Austin Reptile Service / Wikipedia
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- By Aloaiza - Own work, CC BY 3.0 / Wikipedia
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- University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory: “Copperhead.”
- University of Hawaii Waikiki Aquarium: “Yellow-bellied sea snake.”