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What to Do If You Get Bitten By a Snake

bit by a snake

Fear of snakes is called Ophidiophobia and is apparently the second most common phobia in the world after arachnophobia. Like with all phobias, fear of snakes is almost completely irrational.  Don’t believe me?  Consider these stats:

  • 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.
  • 95% of snake bites occur when people try to catch or kill snakes!
  • 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 snake bite fatalities.

The best thing you can do is avoid getting bitten by a snake in the first place.  Read this post about what to do if you see a snake.  But, because you are obviously still worried, here’s what you need to do if you get bitten by a snake.


Remain Calm and Very Still!

There are two reasons why you need to stay calm and still after getting bit by a snake.  The first reason is that the snake may bite you again.  Whether venomous or not, one snake bite is definitely better than two!  Remember that a snake will only bite as a defensive mechanism.  Just stay still and it should go away.

The second reason you need to stay calm and still after getting bit by a snake is to slow the spread of any venom.  Contrary to common belief, snake venom does not travel through the blood.  It travels through the lymphatic system.

In the circulatory system, the heart pumps blood in a loop throughout our bodies.  Lymph does NOT move like this.  It moves in one direction only (towards the neck).  It doesn’t have its own pump system.  Lymph instead relies on the motions of the muscles and joints to move it from cell to cell.   If you stay completely still, then lymph – or 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).


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 really 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 Mental Floss, 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.


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.

However, according to the Red Cross guidelines, it is okay to apply a pressure immobilization bandage to the area.  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 do the pressure immobilization bandaging technique for a snake bite, you must apply the bandage immediately.  The bandage must go over a wide area, much like you would for a sprained ankle.  The bandage should be loose enough so you can get a finger underneath it.  Do NOT cut off blood flow!

Start with the bandage over the bite and wrap the limb. Wrap as much of the limb as possible with your bandaging material.  An Ace bandage works great, as do pantyhose or strips of cut t-shirt.  After you’ve got the bandage on, apply a splint to keep the limb from moving.  Below is a video which shows you how to do it.


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.


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 lymph system.


Get Medical Help Right Away!

In recap: don’t do anything you’ve seen in a Hollywood movie.  Call for professional help.  While waiting for help to come, stay as still as possible and apply a pressure immobilization bandage around the affected limb.


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
  • Swelling
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of motor function, weakness
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Sweating

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!


Are you afraid of getting bit by a snake?




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About the author /

Diane Vukovic grew up camping and backpacking in upstate New York. Now, she takes her own daughters on wilderness adventures so they can connect with nature and learn resiliency. With dozens of trips under her belt, Diane is an expert in minimalist camping, going lightweight, planning, and keeping her kids entertained without screens.

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