Temperatures are on the rise across the country, and with summer well on its way, spending time outdoors is becoming more inviting for us, and snakes. Snakes are good for ecosystems and, the vast majority of the time, are completely harmless to humans. However, we’re here to help if a bite occurs. This guide will teach you about precautions, first aid, and do’s and don’ts for the first sixty minutes after a snake bite is sustained.
What types of snakes are prevalent around you will vary depending on your location. Still, we’ve listed some of the most widespread venomous species to keep an eye out for — Copperheads, Cottonmouths, and Rattlesnakes. This list is a start, but we recommend doing some research on your own to see what types of local snakes are common at home and any travel destination.
Copperheads take their name from their copper-colored (reddish-brown) heads. They have dark, hourglass-shaped bands on the length of their bodies, and can reach up to 3 feet in length.
Cottonmouths, also known as water moccasins, are semi-aquatic snakes and are usually found near water. Young cottonmouths have yellowish or light brown skin, which darkens with age. Their bodies are thicker than many other kinds of snakes, and they have large, blocky heads.
Rattlesnakes are most common in the American Southwest, Mexico, and Central America. When threatened, they coil, hiss, and make a rattling sound by shaking the ends of their tails. Baby rattlesnakes don’t have rattles; instead, they have a small knob where the rattle will grow when they shed their skin. Babies have more potent venom than adults, but they don’t have as much of it.
Taking certain precautionary measures is the easiest way to prevent a snake bite. First and foremost, when hiking, you should always stay on the trail and avoid walking through brush and tall grasses.
Long pants and tall boots are also recommended, as feet and ankles are the areas most commonly bitten. Always look for snakes before picking anything up off the ground, whether it be rocks, sticks, or camping gear. Never try to pick up a snake, even if you think it is dead.
If you come across a snake in nature, the best thing to do is leave it alone. Snakes will not attack humans unprovoked; however, accidents do happen. The next sections will guide you through the steps you should take if you or a hiking partner get bitten.
You should always hike or camp with a well-stocked first aid kit in case an emergency, like a snake bite, arises. If you sustain a snake bite, there are three things you should do as soon as possible.
- Disinfect and dress the wound as quickly as possible.
- Remove any jewelry, tight sleeves, or any other items that will restrict blood flow if the area around the bite starts to swell.
- Splint the bitten limb so that it stays immobilized while you get out of the woods and to proper medical care.
Dos and Don’ts
What You Should Do
Call an ambulance
Experts believe that up to 50% of snake bites are dry, meaning that no venom is released. But even if the snake is not venomous, or if you think the bite was dry, infection is always a concern. In the case of envenomation, professional medical care is essential.
Slow the spread of venom
The higher your heart rate, the faster any venom will spread through your lymph system and into your bloodstream. To slow the spread, stay as relaxed as possible, and do not exert yourself. Stay calm by taking deep breaths and limiting movement. If you are in a dangerous place, get yourself to safety, walking at a leisurely pace.
ID the snake
Do try to get a good look at the snake that bit you, and remember details such as its size, color, and patterns. If you can identify the snake to medical professionals, they will be better able to treat the wound. If you were unable to identify the snake at the time of the bite, that’s okay. You shouldn’t try to catch the snake or risk going near it to make an ID.
What You Shouldn’t Do
Suck the venom
You might’ve heard the myth that if you get bitten by a snake, you should try to suck or cut the venom out of the wound. This is not an effective strategy for removing venom, and it only increases the risk of infection.
Use a tourniquet
You also may have heard elsewhere that you should tourniquet a bitten extremity to cut off circulation and prevent the spread of venom to the rest of your body. But, this can actually worsen the damage by keeping the venom localized, and it could result in possible amputation.
Another myth commonly touted is that ice will deactivate snake venom; however, no science supports this claim. The only proven treatment for venomous snakebite is antivenom and professional hospital care.
If you, or someone you are with, get bitten by a snake, don’t panic. Though venomous snake bites can be life-threatening, and it’s important to take them seriously by obtaining professional medical care, with proper and timely care, very few snake bites result in severe injury or death.
Be a careful hiker and camper, and respect nature to avoid situations where you risk being bitten by a snake. Know what snakes to look out for in your area, and always travel with at least one other person and a first aid kit. If a bite happens, remain calm and follow the first aid guidelines above to reduce possible complications and serious injury. Happy trails!