Snake Bite First Aid: Things You Need to Know before You Panic

The knowledge of snake bite first aid is an indispensable knowledge for an outdoor/wilderness lover and adventurer. Did you know that your hobby and lifestyle as an adventurer increases your chances of encountering snakes? Did you also know that majority of snakes do not have venom?

Most snakes are non venomous and kill their preys by giving dry bites and constricting them to death. Although an estimated 7000-8000 people are bitten per year in the US, only about five people die per year.

See also: Snake Trap: Protecting Yourself And Your Family in The Outdoors

At the end of this article you will know why snakes bite, the types of snake bites, common symptoms of snake bites, effective first aid for snake bites, the numerous myths about snake bites first aid and also preventive measures.

These information should help you respond rapidly and effectively to victims of snake bites and also in circumstances when you are bitten.

Why Do Snakes Bite?

Snakes bite to hunt for prey and also as a means to protect themselves from predators. If they are provoked, startled, cornered or threatened they bite. Interestingly, most snakes kill their prey by constricting them to death. Only a small percent, about 15% of snakes are venomous.

Types of Snake Bites

Dry bites: This is a type of snake bite with no release of snake venom. Dry bites don’t cause neurological damage and hemolysis. However they cause local inflammatory response. It is advisable to treat all snake bites as venomous bites because it’s hard to differentiate a dry bite from a venomous one.

Venomous Bites: This is a type of bite with release of venom into the wound. Snake venom contain poisons which stun, numb or kill preys.

Symptoms of Snake Bites

Symptoms vary from early to late, mild to severe, and also from dry bites to venomous bites. It is important to treat all bites as venomous bites and also to start first aid treatment whether the symptoms are present or not. Here are the common symptoms that you should keep an eye on.

Common SymptomsLocal symptomsVenomous snake bitesLife threatening symptoms
VomitingRednessBleeding disordersHypertension
TachycardiaTendernessHemolysisAltered consciousness
DiarrheaSwelling over the bite areaNeuropathyAcute kidney failure
VertigoTissue necrosisBlurred visionRespiratory failure
Cold clammy skinBite marks that look like two puncture woundsTingling sensationSevere internal bleeding
SalivationMuscle weakness

Aside from the above-mentioned symptoms, being bitten by snake may cause your body to have a life threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. It includes the following:

  • Swelling of mouth, throat or tongue
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty talking
  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Rashes
  • Loss of consciousness

Myths about Snake Bite First Aid

Over the years, research and experience has outmoded old fashioned snake bite first aids that are not only ineffective but harmful. Here is a couple of them:

  1. Applying a tourniquet: Applying a tourniquet to restrict superficial blood flow does help to reduce the spread of the toxin. However concentrated venom rapidly destroys blood cells, nerve cells or other tissue cells. It is safer to allow the venom spread and get diluted in body fluid. This reduces the possibility of toxicity.
  2. Capturing the snake for identification: This is not advisable because attempting to capture the snake may provoke a second or multiple bites which may rapidly become fatal. Some folks insist on capturing the snake to extract its venom to make an antidote. This is very unnecessary. Most antivenom are antibodies that attach to circulating venom antigens and encapsulate them.
  3. Cold compress: cold Compress with ice packs constrict superficial blood vessels and blood flow. Like using a tourniquet, cold compress contains the venom which may cause build up of the toxin in cells and rapidly destroy them.
  4. Mouth suction: A popular myth is sucking enough poison with the mouth and spitting it out. This also is not advisable because further damage may be done to already sensitive and damaged tissue, and this may encourage more penetration of the venom.
  5. Boring out the venom: Another popular belief is to bore out the venom from the wound with a knife or using the teeth. This procedure increases the chances of bacterial infection, further damage to sensitive tissues and faster penetration of the venom.
  6. Using alcohol for pain relief: Alcohol inhibits pain sensation. However using alcohol to numb pain from snake bites is not advisable. In fact it is dangerous because alcohol is a blood thinner and some snake venom are also potent blood thinners. Using alcohol increases the chances of rapidly developing bleeding disorders and blood coagulopathy.
  7. Electric shock treatment: This treatment is still under study and is not yet proven to be effective. For all we know, it may be harmful.
  8. Using pain killers to relieve pain: Just like alcohol, painkillers including aspirin, are blood thinners. Combined with snake venom, they increase the likelihood of you developing bleeding disorders.
  9. Washing affected area with water: You may wash away the snake venom making it difficult to identify the snake species and corresponding antivenom.
  10. Raising affected area above heart level: This maneuver can increase the flow of blood along with the venom back to the heart.
  11. Give the victim food and water: It is advisable not to give food, drink, water or any drug to the victim.
  12. Use of potassium permanganate or chromic: Another popular myth is to apply one percent solution of potassium permanganate or chromic acid to cauterize and disinfect the wound. This is absolutely inadvisable. Chromic acid is a noted toxic and carcinogenic substance.
  13. Immersing wound in warm water or warm milk: This method has no known effect. If not anything it is useless and possibly harmful.
  14. Use of snake stones: This a major snake treatment myth. A black stone made from animal bone or any other organic material is tied round the affected area. This stone is said to absorb the venom from the snake bite. However there is no evidence that this works.

Effective First Aid for Snake Bites

These are emergency treatments done to alleviate fear, stabilize the victim, support the victim’s vital functions and get him to the hospital for expert medical care.

  1. Move victim away from the area: Quickly move the victim away from the snake whether it is dead or alive. Don’t try to capture the snake, to avoid provoking it further. You can have a quick look at the snake to give a description when questioned for details.
  2. Seek medical help: The next step is to seek medical help if possible. Don’t try any heroic acts or stunts or maneuvers. Who knows, raising an alarm may alert the attention of an expert medical personnel.
  3. Keep the victim calm: Most snake bites are non poisonous. It’s good to also known that most of the symptoms, particularly early symptoms are triggered by fear. Nausea, vomiting, tachycardia, fast breathing and fainting are triggered when the victim switches to sympathetic drive.
    Encourage the victim to stay still and breathe through his mouth to steady his breathing. Check his pulse rate and respiratory rate, encourage him to breathe through his mouth for a couple of minutes and check the respiratory and pulse rate to check if it is slowing down.
  4. Proper positioning: Restrict movement as much as possible and keep the affected area at or below heart level to reduce flow of venom. Also remove any restricted clothing, accessory or constricting items round the affected area.
  5. Clean the wound: Clean the wound with a clean cloth. Don’t clean or flush the wound with water. This will flush away the traces of the venom and reduce chances of identification. Next, cover wound with a clean dressing.
  6. Compression: Apply a compression bandage round the affected area to reduce lymphatic drainage but not blood flow. If the affected area is on the trunk, head or neck, apply firm pressure to the affected area. Be careful not to restrict chest movement.
  7. Monitoring: In the absence of bandages or compression bandages for an affected limb, trace the edges of the swelling and note the time. If the swelling progresses, mark the ridges of the swelling and note the time. This information will be handy to a medical personnel to record progression of the swelling.
  8. Immobilize: After cleaning and applying a clean dressing, splint the affected area to prevent movement. In the absence of a splint, you can make a sling using a cloth.
  9. Transport: Run the patient to the nearest available health facility for expert care.

How To Prevent Snake Bites

We all agree that prevention is better than cure. To reduce the likelihood and frequency of sustaining snake bites during camping, hiking and other outdoor activities, keep these tips in mind:

  • Know about the types of snakes native to the area: Before you start that hike or camping trip, do take time to study the snakes native to the area. Ask natives, residents, camp and track guides even the internet to know the types of snakes, whether or not they are poisonous and where exactly they can be found. Also take time to familiarize yourself with the snake bite first aid protocol typical to that area.
  • Wear protective clothing: Wear heavy boots and long pants. Thick boots made of leather are more protective than boots made of less thick materials like canvas. Also it is advisable to wear loose long pants than tight fitting ones. Snake fangs are less likely to penetrate through your pants to your skin when wearing loose pants.
  • Avoid camping in snake habitats: Don’t camp in areas known or even rumored to harbor snakes.
  • Stay away from thick dense brushes and long grass: Avoid areas with dense brushes and long grass, such areas are habitats, nests and natural camouflage from predators for snakes.
  • Don’t stick your limbs into a crevasse or hole: This statement is true for mountain climbers and cave explorers. Snakes could crawl and curl up in such holes to avoid sun, rain and predators.
  • Know that snakes climb trees: Low hanging branches, tress with dense foilage are good hiding spots for snakes. It is easy for them to blend with branches, leaves and taken to be branches. Before climbing a tree, take time to notice the leaves and branches.
  • Be cautious of rivers and lakes: Rivers and lakes, particularly when flooded are good habitats and hiding spots for snakes. Take note of muddy water bodies and rivers that are flooded, or with dense vegetation at the edges.
  • Don’t provoke a snake: Avoid provoking a snake by trying to capture it, handle it or trying to touch its tail.
  • Don’t handle a dead snake with bare hands: After a snake is killed, it still has some reflexes intact. When attempting to confirm its death or specie, the snake can reflexively uncurl and strike. It’s best to stay away from all dead snakes or use a stick to confirm its death.

For more useful tips on how to survive in the wild, see our must-read article on this topic.

Wrapping up

The most important factor in snake bite first aid is rapid response. The shock of being bitten by a snake is enough to stifle any form of immediate action. The best way to prevent this from happening is constant anticipation. Such anticipation can be fueled and sustained by constant drills, simulations and practice of snake bite first aid methods. See our review of the top first aid kit that you must have for any emergencies.

It’s advisable you adequately prepare and anticipate snake bites when camping or hiking, particularly in places that are likely to be snake habitats. Adequate protection and wearing the right clothing is a necessity.

When bitten by a snake, it is important you remain as calm as possible. It is hard to think and act fast when you panic. And as much possible, don’t be tempted to use any of the snake bite first aid myths, no matter how dire the situation is.

Remember that these first aid methods are no substitute for professional medical treatment. The goal of first aid is to stabilize the victim and buy enough time before going to the hospital. Therefore, make sure you get yourself or the victim to the hospital as fast as you can. For more tips on how to avoid animal attacks, check out our article on this topic.

So have you learned anything about first aid for snake bites? Have you been bitten by a snake before or perhaps someone you know? Share your experiences with the scaly kind down in the comment section.


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