Fear of snakes is called Ophidiophobia and is apparently the second most common phobia in the world after arachnophobia. While it’s very unlikely that you will ever get bitten by a snake, it’s still good to be prepared and know what to do.
Below are the first aid steps to follow if you ever get bit by a snake. To avoid getting bit in the first place, read What to do if you see a snake while hiking.
1. Remain Calm and Very Still
The reason you need to stay still after being bitten by a snake — and NOT run away — is because you don’t want the snake to bite you again. Whether venomous or not, one snake bite is definitely better than two!
Remember, snakes only bite as a defensive mechanism. If you were just bit, it means that the snake felt threatened. The snake might interpret sudden movements as an attack. Just stay still and the snake should go away.
*Do Not Try to Catch the Snake
If you can snap a picture of the snake, it can help medical professionals determine the type so they can give you the right antivenin. But don’t do anything stupid like trying to catch or kill the snake. You’ll probably just get bit again. Plus, to catch the snake, you’ll have to move around – which means you’ll speed up the flow of the venom through your body.
2. Move As Little As Possible
While you may feel the urge to freak out and run for help, your best bet is to stay very, very still. The more you move, the faster the snake venom will spread through your body.
Contrary to common belief, snake venom does not travel through the blood. It travels through the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system does not have its own pump system like the circulatory system. Instead, lymph relies on the motions of the muscles and joints to move it from cell to cell. If you stay completely still, then lymph – and the venom in it – cannot move. This makes it fairly easy to stop the spread of venom. You’ve just got to be really still.
Yes, it will probably be hard to stay still after getting bit by a snake. Ideally, the bit person should stay put until help comes. It you do have to move from the location to get help, then a splint should be applied to immobilize the limb (more on that technique later).
3. Do NOT Try to Suck Out the Venom
Thanks to all those scenes from crappy cowboy movies, people got the idea that you could cut around the wound and suck the venom out of a snake bite. This is not the case! Firstly, snake venom travels quickly through the lymphatic system. By the time you start sucking, the venom is already on its course. It would be almost impossible to suck hard enough to actually get any venom out of a wound.
But what about those snake venom extraction kits, like the Sawyer Extractor? According to Snake Bite Foundation, using these extractors can actually do more harm than good. When analyzed, fluid extracted contained hardly any venom at all. Even worse, the suction from the extractors can collapse tissues around the bite wound, trapping venom and causing more harm.
4. Do NOT Apply a Tourniquet
Another thing you frequently see in movies is someone applying a tourniquet above the snake bite to stop the venom from flowing through the body. This seemingly makes sense, but is actually something you should not do.
As a toxicologist talks about in this Washington Post article, applying a tourniquet to a snake bite makes all of the venom stay in one place. This makes the area swell, and can lead to amputation. The swelling also makes it harder to get the antivenin in.
5. Do NOT Wash the Snake Bite
If you are 100% sure that the snake is a harmless garter snake, then you can wash out the wound. However, if you are going to be seeking medical treatment because of a possible envenoming, then you absolutely must not wash the snake bite. The medical staff needs to be able to test your skin for the type of venom.
6. Apply a Bandage
While you don’t want to use a tourniquet on a snake bite, you do want to bandage the area. An elastic Ace bandage is ideal, but you can also use pantyhose or strips of a cut-t-shirt.
The idea is to contain the venom within the limb (but not in one spot so amputation occurs) so the venom doesn’t get to the vital organs. Additionally, the bandaging technique helps keep the affected limb still, which is important to keep the venom from moving through the lymph system and into the circulatory system.
To apply a snake bite bandage:
- Apply the bandage immediately
- The bandage must go over a wide area, like you would do for a sprained ankle
- Keep the bandage loose enough so you can get a finger underneath. Do not cut off blood flow.
- Start with the bandage over the bite area and then wrap the limb.
The video below shows how to bandage a snake bite.
7. Immobilize the Limb
A splint will keep the bit limb from moving, especially as the pain sets in. Remember that it’s important to stay as still as possible so the venom doesn’t spread through the lymphatic system.
8. Get Medical Help
Here is where you have to make a judgment call. If you are hiking with a partner and are only an hour from a ranger station, it might make sense for your partner to go get help while you remain where you are — staying as still as possible.
On the other hand, if you are hiking alone and it no help is nearby, it might make more sense to hike back to your vehicle and rush yourself to the nearest hospital. If you are somewhere really remote and a highly-venomous snake is in question, then you might need to be helicoptered to help.
Even if it isn’t a venomous snake, you should still get medical help for the snake bite as infections can sometimes occur. Better to be safe than sorry!
9. Know What to Expect…
If it is a non-venomous snake, then the wound will probably just hurt like hell. At the hospital/clinic, you will probably be given some antibiotics to prevent infection of the wound. The puncture area can close up quickly, causing dirt and bacteria to get trapped in there, hence the need for antibiotics.
If you got bit by a venomous snake, then expect some symptoms like:
- Severe pain at the bite point which will eventually spread throughout your limb/body
- Loss of motor function, weakness
- Nausea, vomiting
You’ll get antivenom once you get to the hospital. They might ask you about the type of snake and take a sample from your skin to determine the venom type (which is why you shouldn’t wash the wound).
One woman describes her experience being bit by a rattlesnake here. She talks about how the pain was unbelievable just a few minutes after the bite. At the hospital, doctors and nurses rushed around her taking samples of blood and administering morphine. She needed 21 vials of antivenin and stayed in the ICU for 3 days. They managed to save her arm from being amputated, but it still gives her pain.
In this guy’s experience with a copperhead snake bite, he also had unbelievable pain and required lots of antivenin as well as antibiotics to save his leg. But he also survived. Yes, it is scary but death by snakebite is really rare. Just make sure you stay still and get help asap!
But You Probably Won’t Be Bitten By a Snake
While it’s absolutely smart to know what to do if you get bitten, the chances of a snake bite are very slim. Here are some facts to appease you.
- Of the approximately 3,000 species of snakes in the world, only about 15% are venomous.
- Snakes do not attack humans. They only strike as a defensive mechanism when they feel threatened.
- Because snakes strike as a defensive mechanism, many times their bites are “dry.” In other words, the snake doesn’t release any of its venom into the wound.
- Many snake bites in the USA occur from people who keep exotic snakes as pets, inflating the snake bite statistics.
- In the USA, your chances of dying of a snake bite are nearly ZERO. You are 9x more likely to die from being struck by lightning than a snake bite in the USA.
- In Europe, your chances of death by snake bite are also nearly zero. Only Russia has a significant number of snakebite fatalities.