Snake Bite! What To Do If You’re Bitten And How Treatments Work

Snake Bite! What To Do If You’re Bitten And How Treatments Work

You may have seen Hollywood movies where someone sucks the venom out of a snake bite to save themselves, or someone else, but this is so wrong. By sucking the venom out, you are filling your mouth with poison, even if you spit it out.

Hollywood Is Wrong … Don’t Suck Venom Out Of A Snake Bite.

Statistics On Snake Bites

An estimated 5 million people are bitten by snakes worldwide every single year. Out of those 5 million bites 125,000 are fatal, that’s a quarter of all bites. Every year, 7000 to 8000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States, but only 5 or 6 of those bites result in the person dying. So the chances of you dying from a snake bite is rare.

Most bites in the United States and in the world have been associated with food production and the farming community. Snake bites in the United States are the most preventable because they are mostly the result of having a pet snake or intentionally coming into contact with a wild snake. Whichever, the bite happens, it is always frightening to the victim and to anyone around them.

Many advances have been made in the techniques used to treat snake bites, especially in anti-venom. Hospitals worldwide treat snake bites as a tropical disease. All snake bites, venomous or not, are treated with emergency care and taken very seriously.

The first thing a doctor must determine is whether the victim was bitten by a venomous snake. Studies have been conducted as to what happens in the body after a bite from a poisonous snake, and this has helped determine best anti-venoms for treatment.

Poisonous Snakes

In North America, pit vipers and coral snakes are the only venomous snakes native to the land. They are from the Crotalinai subfamily and the Elapida family, respectively. When you add imported poisonous snakes at zoos and who reside withcollectors, as well as illegal importation, it can be hard to find the right anti-venom.

Pit vipers are commonly known as the rattlesnake, cottommouth, or copperhead. All three have hollow fangs, slitted pupils, and a pit between their nostrils and eyes that allows them to seek heat. What that means is that they find their prey through this pit, locating animals through their body heat. That also means, sometimes they bite humans. Another way to identify them is that their scale patterns are different from snakes that are non-venomous.

Coral snakes have grooved teeth versus the hollow fangs of the pit vipers, their pupils are round and they do not have a pit for the purpose of heat seeking. Doctors are aware of these differences in snakes, but most of the public are not and therefore are not able to determine if they were bitten by one of these snakes or a non-poisonous snake, such as a garden snake.

Why is Venom Dangerous?

The venom from a snake contains many proteins that create damage in the human body in different ways. Each snake species’ venom differs from the other, and age, season, and genes, also create different venom in snakes. The venom from a North American pit viper will damage the lymphatic system and blood vessels, including bone marrow, spleen, and lymph nodes.

Some venom affects the heart, nervous system, muscles and so on, while other types of venom affect other parts of the body, but there is overlap, and it is not safe to say that one particular snake bite only affects certain parts of the body.

Starting at the site of the wound, venom makes its way to organs, lungs, heart, and the nervous system. Venom from a pit viper renders a human’s blood vessels permeable, meaning they begin leaking red blood cells and other particles, creating a devastating cascading of cardiovascular events that can be fatal. Also, tissue damage begins and necrosis can set it. Getting medical help quickly is essential to saving a life.

Determining Severity Of Snake Bite

Snake bites from a venomous snake are very painful. The pain can feel like a whack from a hammer. Intense and causing a stinging sensation, these bites are different from that of a non-poisonous snake. Pit viper bites are 75% venomous, while 25% can be a dry bite where no venom is injected. Bites vary in severity and the effects can stay local to the wound or spread rapidly through the body.

From Gold BS, Dart RC, Barish RA. Bites of venomous snakes. N Engl J Med 2002; 347(5):347-356. Copyright © 2002 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved.

Treating A Snake Bite

Before The Hospital

Do not try to capture the snake and make sure to move away from the snake. Stay calm and determine how you will get medical help, and get it quickly. Keep the wound below heart level, remove constrictive clothing or jewelry, and lie in a semi-reclined position.

Do not try to suck out the venom, immerse the wound in ice, or use electric shock, as you may have seen in old movies. Let paramedics deal with the bite and transport the victim to the hospital.

At The Hospital

A doctor will quickly administer anti-venom after determining if the bite is from a poisonous snake, by taking blood, and examining the fang marks, bruising, and swelling. They will also conduct a skin test to make sure the victim is not allergic to the anti-venom. Those who are sensitive or allergic to horse or sheep products might have a problem.

Doctors will measure how large the swelling is around the bite so they can track how quickly the venom is traveling. This is their guide for injecting anti-venom. With pit viper bites, doctors watch the victim for 8 hours before letting them go. based on the possibility of a delayed reaction. With a coral snake bite respiratory and neurological symptoms may not occur for hours. These victims are watched for 12 hours before being discharged.


CroFab is the anti-venom used for bites from the pit viper and is made through the immunization of sheep using venom from four different pit viper species. Antibodies are then collected from the sheep to be used in the anti-venom. Anti-venom is given in increments until the symptoms stop progressing.

Wyeth Antivenin is used to treat coral snake bites, which is derived from horses instead of sheep, but is being discontinued. Since this is the only FDA approved anti-venom for coral snake bites, a clinical trial of a coral snake anti-venom used in Mexico is being conducted.



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