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Survival / April 24, 2018

Be ready for a snakebite

Written by: Mitch Harris

Snakes and snakebites are a pretty popular device in American books and TV shows (westerns, especially), and knowing how to treat a snakebite properly is often portrayed as a sign of rugged, self-reliant masculinity.

But pretty much 100% of the snakebite treatments we see in adventure stories are wrong, and often laughably so. There is absolutely no reason to ever suck a snake’s venom out from a wound, for example, or to slice a bite victim open with a knife. Instead, proper snakebite treatment pretty much follows three steps:

  1. Don’t get bit by a snake.
  2. Don’t do anything stupid.
  3. Clean it, wrap it, and get help.

That’s it. Seriously.

In this piece, I’ll delve a bit deeper into each of those three topics and will provide a simple, actionable guide to treating a snakebite in the backcountry.

 

1. Don’t get bit by a snake

Every year, about 8,000 people in the U.S. are bitten by venomous snakes (about a quarter of those people live in Texas or Florida, so be extra careful in those states). And while bites happen to all sorts of people, they overwhelmingly happen to folks who fall into two groups:

  1. People who work in areas with brush or tall grass
  2. People who are messing around with snakes

If you fall into the former category, or if you hike often in these areas, you can drastically reduce your odds of being bit just by dressing properly. When working or walking through brushy areas, always wear high-top boots and long pants. These pants should be canvas or denim—something thick enough to catch a snake’s fangs if it does strike. They should also be loose-fitting, so that any fang that does penetrate will be caught far from your skin.

If you fall into the latter category… just stop it. Venomous snakes have no reason or desire to bite humans, and will only do so if they are startled or feel threatened. So if you hear a rattle or see a snake coiled into a defensive posture, take the hint and walk away.

Both of these tips apply to anyone hiking through tall grass, in thick brush, or over rock formations (where snakes often find crannies to hide in). Unfortunately for lovers of hiking shorts, these precautions are most necessary during the hottest months of the year, when snakes are the most active.

 

1(a). Know your snakes

In the United States, there are really only four types of venomous snakes. So you don’t have to be a herpetologist to know what to look out for. If you work or play outside, learn to recognize:

  • Rattlesnakes: These snakes are found all over the country, and easily recognized by their rattle. Most U.S. snakebites are rattlesnake bites.
  • Copperhead: These tan, patterned snakes are found pretty much everywhere east of Dallas. Though there are exceptions, they’re generally characterized by an hourglass pattern on their backs.
  • Cottonmouth: Usually found in or around water in the southeastern U.S., these snakes will open their mouth and gape at you if threatened. That’s your cue to leave.
  • Coral snakes: Coral snakes can be found along the Gulf Coast and along the U.S. / Mexico border in Arizona. Their patterns differ, but they can always be identified by adjacent red and yellow stripes. Hence the old adage, “Red on yellow, kill a fellow”.

Rattlesnakes can display many different patterns (shown here is a Western Diamondback), but that big rattle makes them pretty easy to identify.

Copperhead snakes are marked with a pattern that resembles an hourglass when seen from above. They come in many different colors.

You'll know it's a Cottonmouth when it does this. When threatened, the snakes show their open mouths. Photo by Peter Paplanus.

The Coral Snake is easy to spot. Look for a bright yellow stripe immediately adjacent to a red stripe. Non-venomous King Snakes display similar colors, but their stripes are not in this order. Photo by Norman Benton

If you see one of these snakes, leave it alone. All can strike at a considerable distance (usually about half the snake’s length), but none will strike unless they feel threatened. Give these snakes a wide berth and you won’t get bit.

 

2. Don’t do anything stupid

If you or a member of your party is bit by a venomous snake (a situation that, again, you really ought to be able to avoid), resist the temptation to try any of the tough guy remedies you’ve seen on TV or in the movies. Your response to a snakebite should look nothing at all like this:

 

In the interest of not making things worse, don’t:

  • Try to suck venom out of the bite wound
  • Cut the victim to “bleed out” the venom
  • Ice the bite or apply a tourniquet
  • Search for the snake to capture or kill it

These are bad ideas. Sucking venom from a wound never works. Even with snakebite kits (which are worthless), suction can only remove about 1/1,000th of the venom injected by a snakebite. You will wind up with some venom and blood in your mouth, though, and loads of germs in the bite wound.

Likewise, cutting a bite victim open will not save them from the venom. It will just leave them with a new wound that could very easily get infected.

Icing the bite or applying a tourniquet will slow the spread of venom throughout the body, but these are not generally considered good treatment options. Most healthy adults can survive envenomation by a North American snake, but cutting off circulation and leaving venom to pool in one part of the body can cause irreversible tissue damage.

And, finally, don’t ever try to capture or kill the snake. Medical professionals will be well-served by a description of the snake if you can provide one, but they should be able to guess the correct antivenom just by knowing your location. They definitely don’t want to deal with a dead or captured snake.

 

3. Clean it, wrap it, and get help

Proper snakebite treatment is actually pretty simple. Treat the bite itself as you’d treat any other puncture wound, and treat the victim as if they’ve been poisoned (they have).

Remove jewelry and constrictive clothing (including shoes) from the area around the bite, as this area will almost certainly swell. Then clean the would (ideally with an alcohol swab or antibacterial soap) and wrap it in a clean, loose bandage. Again, this whole area will probably swell up, so don’t wrap the bandage too tightly.

If you’re in an area that’s easy to access, lay the victim down with the wound below their heart and call for rescue. Keep their head elevated and give them plenty of water, but do not give them alcohol, caffeine, or any medications (including pain meds). Guide their breathing and keep them calm and comfortable—panic will elevate their heart rate and speed the spread of venom.

If envenomated, victims will experience swelling and severe pain at the bite site within less than an hour. They may also experience blurred vision, labored breathing, and nausea. They might pass out—if they do, tilt their head to the side in case they vomit.

Bite victims can be moved, but only should be if absolutely necessary. If your friend is bitten in a wilderness area, support their weight and get them to help as quickly as possible.

Pretty much everything you’ll need to be ready for a snakebite can be found in a basic first-aid kit. We recommend the MyMedic Solo for individual hikers and the MyMedic MyFAK for families or large groups.

The MyMedic Solo: a lightweight first aid kit designed for solo hikers and bikers.

The MyMedic MyFAK: a comprehensive kit designed for groups and for serious emergencies.


Think you know how to treat a snakebite better than us? Email us at [email protected] to let us know. 

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about the author

Mitch Harris

Mitch Harris embraced the Every Day Carry trend long before it was cool. From the day he got his first pocket knife, Mitch has devoted himself to staying prepared for every eventuality. Through his position at Shoulders of Giants, he’s able to keep his kit stocked with the very newest and best EDC gear.

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