When it comes to planning for backcountry adventures, we should always spare a thought for the local wildlife.
The risk of encountering and being bitten by a snake, even in a sparsely populated area, is relatively low.
You should still know what to do if bitten by a rattlesnake, just as a precaution. Rattlesnakes in particular should be spared a thought if you venture into their territory, as a rattlesnake bite requires some serious attention. Knowing what to do if bitten by rattlesnake is particularly important.
What is so important about rattlesnakes?
Unlike a large number of snake bites that occur on an annual basis, rattlesnake bites should be treated as a medical emergency.
This is because rattlesnakes are highly venomous. Rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal, as long as someone present knows how to manage the situation effectively. That someone will be you once you finish reading this article!
Around thirty different species of rattlesnakes can be found across the world, with even more subspecies.
Most of the venom that comes from rattlesnakes works by damaging tissue. This goes on to affect the circulatory system and cause internal hemorrhaging, which is why a bite should always be treated as serious.
This includes a situation where you aren’t 100% sure what species of snake was responsible for the bite, as it is better to be safe than sorry.
What should someone do after being bitten by a rattlesnake?
There are a number of different things that can be done to aid someone who has been bitten by a rattlesnake.
There are also a number of different things that you can do if you are alone and have been bitten by a rattlesnake.
But, before you embark down any of those roads you need to focus on the two most important steps.
1. Distancing yourself from the rattlesnake
Before you start to think about how to manage the situation, you need to put as much distance between yourself and the rattlesnake as you can.
In general, snakes will usually only strike at a human if they feel threatened. This explains why a lot of people end up with bites on their lower legs and hands, as they have gotten a little bit too close.
There is a small risk of a snake striking twice if it still feels that you are a threat, so any distance that is placed between yourself and the snake will prevent that from happening.
If you are with someone who has been bitten by a snake, it is vital to initially keep the person as calm as possible and move them at least 25ft away from the culprit.
There could also be a risk of other members of a group getting bitten, so everyone should follow the same advice.
2. Seeking medical attention as quickly as possible
It is incredibly important to seek medical treatment as quickly as possible after either yourself or a member of your group has been bitten by a rattlesnake, as time really is of the essence.
Rattlesnake venom takes just a few seconds to enter the bloodstream and symptoms can start to appear straight away.
In an ideal situation, an ambulance would be the best option. If an ambulance is not available, then you should still ring the emergency services for advice.
In a worst case scenario, you might have to draw up a plan to get the either yourself or the person who has been bitten to the closest hospital for medical attention. They will know how to treat rattlesnake bite there, so you won’t need to worry.
Most hospitals will have an appropriate anti-venom to hand, especially if the culprit is a snake is known to be indigenous to the surrounding area.
Remember that you should always arrange medical attention, even if you are not certain what species of snake was the culprit.
It is better to await symptoms in a hospital where they can be dealt with swiftly, opposed to waiting for them to appear in the backcountry.
What should you do to manage the situation between those steps?
It is one thing to be bitten by a rattlesnake and know to arrange for an ambulance to come and get you, but it is another thing entirely to know what to do while waiting for said ambulance to arrive.
If you are out in the rural backcountry then it could take a while, so you need to know what you should do to manage the situation while you wait.
There are a lot of different factors that you can take into consideration when it comes to looking after someone with a snake bite, or looking after yourself once you have been bitten.
These range from the amount that the bitten person moves, to whether or not the bite can be treated in any way before the ambulance arrives.
Your Guide to Managing the Situation
The most important thing about dealing with your own bite, or a bite that is affecting someone else, is staying calm.
It could easily feel like a million and three questions are running through your head all at once, but there are some important questions that you should focus on. They include:
How much should the person who has been bitten by a rattlesnake move around?
Ideally, the person who has been bitten by a rattlesnake, be it yourself or a member of your group, should move around as little as possible.
It is really important to immobilize the affected person until help is at hand, as any movement only increases the rate of blood flow around the body.
This needs to be kept to a minimum, as it would potentially enable the venom to spread throughout the body quicker.
If the person in question gets dizzy, should we lay them down and lift their legs up?
The answer to this question depends entirely on where the person has been bitten. If the person in question has not been bitten on their lower body, then laying them down and lifting their legs up is a good way of tackling any dizziness that the person may be experiencing.
You should never do this if the bite is present on the lower body. Ideally, you want to make sure that the area where the bite is, is never moved in a way that would place it above the heart.
For example, if you were to lay a person on the ground and lift up a leg that had been bitten, you would unintentionally cause the venom from the bite to reach the person’s heart faster.
Should an attempt be made to treat the bite in question?
One of the most important questions that you should be asking yourself is what you can do about the actual bite, be it on yourself or someone else, while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
There are several things that you could do, although none of them would completely resolve the problem, only professional medical attention can do that. You can follow these instructions to get control over the situation:
Remove anything that can be found around the area that has been bitten. This includes any clothing that is in the surrounding area, or any jewelry that might be present.
Snake bites are known to cause the area surrounding them to swell up at a fast pace, causing anything that is near the site of the bite itself to constrict blood flow. To avoid this scenario, anything around the bite should be removed.
Try to avoid instantly applying pressure to the wound when you see blood. Ideally, you want as much venom to leak out of the wound as possible. Allowing the blood to flow freely helps this, as it might allow some of the venom to exit where the wound is.
Remember, the venom from a rattlesnake enters your bloodstream within just a few seconds, so the person in question would still need urgent medical attention.
Do you have a snake bite kit to hand? If you do, throw away the knife. You do not need it. The pump suction device on the other hand, that could help.
All pump suction devices come with their own unique set of instructions, but most work by placing the pump over the wound itself and sucking the venom out of it. Again, this does not fix the problem, but it can buy you a little bit of time.
Be careful with your bandage. You might want to wash the wound before you bandage it up, but this is something that you should not do, regardless of all of the first aid training that tells you to efficiently wash a wound before bandaging.
Some of the venom from the bite could be present on the skin surrounding the wound and often medical professionals will use this to identify the species of rattlesnake. This enables them to find appropriate anti-venom quickly.
The Importance of Staying Calm
Of all of the factors that can be found in our guide for managing the situation, staying calm would have to be one of the most important.
If you have been bitten, then you should do everything that you can to try to keep a level head.
If someone in your group has been bitten, then you should try everything you can to keep them calm and stop the situation from escalating.
It might sound like staying calm is simply in place for the sanity of the person who has been bitten, but the reality is quite different.
Staying calm serves a physical purpose too. Any anxiety or panic that is present can cause a lot of problems, as either will start to make the pulse quicker, enabling the venom to spread around the body at a faster pace.
Due to this, it is vital that a strategic view is taken on staying calm. If you have been bitten, remember that medical attention is all that you need. It is incredibly rare for a snake bite to be fatal.
If you are alone, then after calling for medical assistance you could call the Poison Control services. They would be able to talk you through everything, reminding you that the situation is not as dire as it might seem.
If another member of your group has been bitten, then you should simply talk to that person normally. Often asking a person questions about generic things will take their mind off of the situation that is unfolding around them.
Paying Attention to the Details
If you were to be bitten by a rattlesnake, you might find yourself struggling with some of these steps.
Ideally, they should be followed by the people who are with the person who has been bitten, as the effects of the venom from the rattlesnake can be strikingly quick. Here are some of the things that should be taken note of:
- Swelling and discoloration around the bite wound
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether or not you have actually been bitten by a venomous species of snake, especially if you only got a quick glance of it. One indication that the snake was venomous comes in the form of the wound itself.
Often, wounds that are inflicted by venomous snakes will quickly begin to swell and change color. Remember, never leave anything to chance. Call a medical professional for assistance immediately.
- The shape of the wound itself
The shape of the wound itself can also tell us a lot about the species of snake that could have inflicted the bite.
Venomous snake bites stand out a lot, as they usually feature just one or two different puncture wounds.
If the bite appears to have a row of small punctures, then that would be an indication of the smaller teeth that are often found in the mouths of non-venomous snakes. Again, never leave anything to chance.
- Any symptoms that the person who has been bitten is showing
After being bitten by a venomous snake, symptoms can start to appear almost immediately. They can come in the form of dizziness initially, or there might be a lot of intense pain at the wound site itself.
Often these are accompanied by things like blurred vision. Prickling in other areas of the body is something that a lot of people know to look out for, as that usually points to a venomous snake having bitten the person.
Remember, intense panic can also cause some of these symptoms to manifest. This is another reason why it is so important to keep the person that has been bitten calm, so that the symptoms are obvious and easy to spot.
You should also look out for any signs of shock after the bite has occurred. These usually come in the form of paleness, as a person will go drip white, an increased rate of breathing and a faster pulse, and sickness.
If the wound site is not on the lower body, then a person in shock would find laying down and having their legs lifted off of the ground by about a foot to be very beneficial.
If ever there are no signs of life, CPR needs to be started immediately. Do not wait for the ambulance to arrive in this scenario (as long as you know that it is on the way), CPR is something that needs to be put into place quickly. Often, medical professionals will take over as soon as they arrive.
- Making sure that the person who has been bitten does not eat or drink.
Water is the only exception to this rule. Anything else would raise the metabolism of the person who has been bitten, enabling the venom to spread throughout the body at a faster pace.
A lot of people will be in shock, so drinking water could also be difficult.
- Have you got a marker pen around?
A marker pen can be your best friend in a snakebite situation, especially if you are out in the backcountry on your own. You have to consider what would happen if you were unconscious when the medical professionals got to you and that is where the marker pen comes into play.
Near the wound site, you should write down the time at which you were bitten. This enables medical professionals to create a timeline.
When swelling begins to appear, you should draw around the swelling and write the time again, making sure that the medical professionals will be able to differentiate between the two different times.
You can also write the symptoms that you are experiencing somewhere in the general vicinity of the wound, so that medical professionals are certain to see them. It helps if you also include the time with these.
An accurate timeline ensures that you get the best treatment that you can, and knowing what symptoms you have experienced makes it a lot easier to treat you efficiently.
Should you cut the rattlesnake bite wound or suck the venom out of the wound?
When it comes to snake bites, there are a lot of different pieces of information floating around. We have all heard about sucking venom out of a wound, something that would only result in the venom entering the body of the person sucking the wound, not to mention enabling the bacteria from the person’s mouth to enter the wound. But, what other misconceptions exist?
Should I cut the wound to ‘release’ the venom?
Unfortunately, a lot of ‘professional’ snake bite kits still contain knives, so it is easy to see why this misconception still exists. People have thought for decades that cutting the wound can help release the venom from the body, but scientific tests have proven that that is not the case.
In fact, it often makes the situation worse. The knife that you would use would be an unsterilized knife in a very unsterilized environment, this could result in serious infection. Given the tissue damage that is often caused by a venomous bite, infection of the area could be real nightmare.
Should I let someone ‘suck’ the venom out of the wound?
As we have already stated, this one is definitely a general misconception that we wish people would forget about.
The reality is that it results in complications for both the person sucking the wound and the person that has been bitten by a rattlesnake. One is allowing venom to enter their body via their mouth, the other is allowing the bacteria from inside of someone’s mouth to enter their body via their wound.
Scientists have proven that venom enters the bloodstream far too quickly for this to be effective, so it should be avoided at all costs.
Should I apply a tourniquet to stop the venom from travelling in my bloodstream?
In theory, applying a tourniquet makes a lot of sense. You would be stopping the venom from spreading into other parts of your body via your bloodstream.
The reality is quite different. Firstly, by the time you thought to apply a tourniquet and managed to apply one, the venom would already be working its way through your bloodstream, having already gone further than a tourniquet would prevent it from going.
Secondly, often tourniquets do a lot of damage, so it usually is not worth the risk of attempting to use one.
Should I immerse the wound in water to help with the swelling?
We all want to immerse a wound in water or cover it in ice if we start to swell up, especially if the wound in question is painful. You need to be a little bit more cautious when it comes to a rattlesnake bite.
The vital tissue surrounding the wound is often the first thing to suffer when a rattlesnake bite occurs, so it is important to preserve this tissue for as long as possible.
Using either cold water or ice would slow down the blood circulation in the affected area, something that could potentially speed up the damage.
Should I let someone pee on the wound?
No, definitely. You should never let someone pee on your snakebite wound, no matter how much you believe it will neutralize the toxins in the wound. It won’t.
It would be a waste of time that could otherwise have been spent contacting medical professionals.
Rattlesnake bites are only scary if you believe they are!
One of the best things about snake bites is that only a handful of people die due to them on an annual basis.
This is usually due to poor conditions or a lack of medical attention, which is why immediate medical attention is so important. Make sure that you spend a little bit of time researching preventative measures too, opposed to just preparing for a worst case scenario.
Snakes are only as scary as we allow them to be, most of the time bites occur simply because we get a little bit too close, whether or not we realize that we are. If a bite does occur, stay calm, seek medical attention, and make sure that you are as far away from the rattlesnake as possible.
Do you believe that you would know how to handle a rattlesnake bite situation? Or, have you already been face-to-face with a situation like this? We would love to hear about it in the comments below.
Daniel is a gear freak when it comes to hiking, climbing and camping. He went to REI Outdoor School to meet new people and learn best practices. Don’t even try to argue with him about the latest backpack or ice axe, he tried most of them. Daniel’s dream is to climb Mount Everest.
4 thoughts on “What to Do If Bitten by Rattlesnake: Keeping a Level Head in a Tricky Situation”
Is it safe to drive a friend who is bitten by a rattlesnake 20-30 minutes from a trailhead to a reach hospital?
Ideally, you should wait for the ambulance to arrive instead and keep the friend as still as possible until then. But if that’s not possible, transporting the friend might be an option, especially if as little movement as possible is doable. But generally, getting help in 20-30 minutes after they were bitten is still a solid timeframe.
I just read this recently, and it’s a very interesting tidbit!
Looking forward to more great articles!
This getting help by phone idea doesn’t seem to click with the poor cell reception in many hiking areas.
If my partner is hurt by a snake shall make him or her comfortable and run for help?