What to do if You're Bit by a Venomous Snake and a Justification to Listen to Metallica
Updated: Mar 29
Like any wild animal, if snakes are cornered or harassed, they will defend themselves. If given the opportunity though, they'd rather go find some place to hide.
If you’ve been bitten, CALL 911! They are in contact with the Florida Poison Information Center at 1-800-222-1222 if you need help or have been bitten. If you are living in Florida, Poison Information Center is a statewide service divided into three regional areas: Jacksonville, Tampa, and Miami. They work closely with emergency medical staff when a person comes in with a venomous snake bite. In Tampa, it is operated out of Tampa General Hospital and is affiliated with University of South Florida College of Medicine. They are available 365 days/24 hours a day. A physician toxicologist, a registered nurse trained in toxicology and an entomologist are always on call.
Once you arrive at the hospital, treatment depends on the signs you are showing. If there is very little swelling or pain, instead of administering antivenin, they may just observe and monitor your vital signs. This is because there is the possibility that the snake bit, but didn’t inject venom. So try not to get too irritated. The doctors are doing what’s best for you. It doesn’t make sense to administer antivenin when there is no sign that it was injected. It saves the antivenin for someone who has been envenomated, and it saves you thousands of dollars per vial.
1. Spend some time on the computer researching venomous snakes that are found in your area. Memorize what they look like and their behaviors. It is much easier to memorize six snakes (or however many are in your area) then it is to memorize the numerous non-venomous snakes that are the ones most commonly seen. Also check to see if there are non-venomous snakes that mimic venomous ones. The coral snake has two: the scarlet kingsnake and the scarlet snake. The water moccasin has a couple of species of water snakes that are incredibly similar.
If you live near a herpetological society, get in touch with them. They are a great resource of information. (Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians. A herpetological group is a group of people interested in reptiles who get together and meet.)
2. Inevitably, your yard is going to have snakes in it. There is no such thing as an effective product that keeps snakes out. And if there was, it would probably wash away in the rain and/or be toxic to the environment. Some substances, like mothballs, are illegal to use outside or in any way other than directed.
There are ways to discourage them from visiting, though. Snakes like cover and hate to be out in the open. Make sure your grass is kept short and your shrubbery trimmed. Pick up any brush piles, stacks of wood (or come up with a creative way to keep them out of the wood.) or toys. Likewise, any construction debris should be removed. Walk around your house and yard and fill in any holes (except for a gopher tortoise burrow). Try to keep your yard inhospitable to their main prey source - rodent populations. If you keep chickens, make sure that they are in a coop that snakes can’t get into. Snakes can squeeze through small openings and eggs and chicks are a snake delicacy. *Note on rodenticides - Products like RidX, where the rodent ingests the poison is not recommended for use. It not only kills the rodent but animals that eat the rodent in a secondary poisoning. Another thing not to use are glue traps. It traps all animals (a kitten for instance) and they will either have a long suffering death or tear themselves apart.) To release an animal, use vegetable or olive oil. Pour it on, and if you can work the animal loose.
Despite your best efforts, you’re going to walk outside and encounter a sunning snake, or one just passing through. What to do?
The best thing is to leave it alone. A snake’s first instinct is to flee. It could be a foot long, or it could be 20 feet and weigh hundreds of pounds, it doesn’t change the fact that they are only a few inches tall. Imagine standing in a four foot deep pool and suddenly a giraffe comes into view and stands next to where you are, he awkwardly starts to spread his front legs apart so he can lower his head to the pool. Any sudden movements would startle him. Drinking is their most vulnerable position in the wild. The best option would be to stay as still as you can until he leaves, then calmly leave the pool and get inside. That is what a snake wants to do - he wants to get away from the giraffe (you).
Their first instinct will be to freeze. If they are feeling threatened, they'll coil up in an "S" position. Their head and neck will be raised while they are looking at you, flicking their tongue and possibly rattling. They may feign strikes or bites, and usually, it's all a bluff. They really don't want to use their venom for defense. When they feel they are safe, they will leave post-haste to where they think is the best place to hide. Sometimes you just happen to be between it and the spot. This has led to rumors that they chase people. There's no truth to it. It would be detrimental to their instinct to survive.
"Survival of the Fittest" seems cliche here, but if snakes chased people so they could bite someone, they would be depleting their energy stores and available venom to use on their prey, leaving them unable to defend themselves or eat. Going from a defensive position to offensive position doesn't make sense as far as a survival plan goes.
As soon as you see a snake, turn and walk in a different direction. If you absolutely have to pass, give a very wide berth (a snake can strike at least 1/3 its body length). As soon as you’re gone and the snake feels safe, it will move, quickly.
If you get bit, DON'T DO THESE THINGS
1. DON’T GO AFTER THE SNAKE OR KILL IT. Trying to kill a snake increases the chance of getting bit again. Trying to catch it increases the venom’s rate of absorption. Also, hospitals really don’t appreciate venomous snakes coming into their emergency room departments - dead or alive. Instead of chasing and killing, call 911.
Also, DON'T TOUCH A DEAD SNAKE. They have metabolisms that are much slower than ours. When animals (including us) die, our systems don't all stop at once. Snakes can take hours. During this time, they are still receiving the nerve impulses that allows it to bite. If the snake was a pit viper, the snake would also still be getting heat sensing signals, so it would know where to bite. If this isn't freaky enough, a decapitated snake's head acts the same. It just makes it easy for the head to jump around. And yes, they also feel pain during their zombie period. Imagine the irony that a snake that was decapitated because it was venomous got its revenge when the guy tried to pick its head up?
2. Unless you are bleeding profusely and you are in danger of bleeding to death, you should NEVER apply a tourniquet EVER. If it is applied incorrectly or it is on too long, the limb will die. You could, at best, have nerve damage and lose use of that limb. At worst, it will have to be amputated. Bleeding will never be bad enough with a snake bite for it to be necessary to use a tourniquet (unless you cut the bite to suck out the venom, and that is also on this list).
3. It’s perfectly reasonable to think that pooling the venom in one area is a good idea. It will keep the venom from spreading. It’s not. The more venom that is pooled in one area, the more damage it does. Pit viper venom is mostly a hemotoxin and it breaks down and destroys tissue. It is better to let the venom circulate through your body and let it thin out then risk losing your limb, either through the improper use of a tourniquet and/or the pooling of tissue destroying toxins in one area.
For that reason, nor should you apply ice to a bite. It will slow down circulation, allowing the venom to do more damage as it’s moving slowly through your system.
4. Buying a snake bite kit at the store is a waste of money. Again, you can possibly do more damage. The extractor in these kits claims to be a vacuum that produces a suction powerful enough to take the venom out. In theory, it doesn't make sense, Think about getting an injection in a doctor’s office. Do you think that an extractor would be able to remove the medication injected into your muscle and fat? It won’t work with venom, either. By the time the extractor is retrieved, taken out of the packaging and get it ready, the venom is already distributing throughout your system. These suction cup extractors can be damaging all by itself, causing serious bruising as the vessels underneath your skin gets sucked up with force enough to break them open. Besides sucking up skin and vessels, it may concentrate the venom in one area and more damage is likely.
5. Cutting the wound and sucking out the venom is a big no-no as well (told you it was coming). It’s painful, causes more bleeding, and the person sucking blood out of the wound might just get envenomated themselves through mucous membranes and/or cuts. It’s also not sanitary and a secondary infection could happen at the site of the bite.
6. Do not drink or eat anything, and for heaven’s sake, no alcohol! Both alcohol and venom are blood thinners and will increase bleeding. Anything that is eaten or drunk can adversely interact with the venom.
7. DO NOT TAKE BENADRYL OR ANY OTHER MEDICATION EXCEPT UNDER THE CARE OF A DOCTOR!!! Benadryl is used to treat allergies. It reduces swelling by attacking histamines. Snake venom is not an allergen and any effects from snake venom like swelling is caused by the venom. If you were to fall and sprain an ankle that caused swelling, you wouldn't take Benadryl to treat it - you would take an anti-inflammatory since it's an injury. DON'T TAKE AN ANTI-INFLAMMATORY EITHER. This is very important: THE ONLY THING THAT WILL TREAT A SNAKE BITE AND REDUCE SWELLING IS AN ANTIVENIN!
Now here’s what to do if you get bit.
1. Call for help immediately! There is usually around a two hour window to get treatment - but don’t take your time.
2. If you can, take a picture of the snake, but, chances are that the culprit is a pit viper, and if so, the same antivenin, CroFab is used. There are subtle differences between species, but not enough that it makes it important to get a picture. CroFab is made from the venom of several species of pit vipers found in the United States. Visual descriptions will do just fine if you saw it but couldn’t manage to to snap a pic. As of 2019, there is a new antivenin on the market. Anavip is cheaper and lasts longer in the body. This means that no maintenance treatments are needed to prevent problems with bleeding, unlike CroFab.
3. Lay down and stay calm (easier said than done.) Take deep breaths, think of something that calms you, etc. The more you panic, the faster the venom will spread. You don’t want it pooling in one area, but you don’t want it racing the Daytona 500 in your veins either.
4. Keep the affected limb lower than your heart. Make gravity work for you.
5. Loosen up clothing like shirt collars, belts, scarves, unbutton pants and take off boots and shoes. Remove any jewelry you have, including all piercings. The venom will cause swelling, so everything needs to be loosened or taken off so blood flow won’t be restricted.
6. If you can, circle the bite wound with a pen as closely as you can and write down the date and time you were bitten. This will help the doctor approximate how much venom was injected, and the rate at which it is moving.
And finally, here are a few interesting facts that you might want to keep in the back of your mind:
~Reptiles don't carry rabies. Neither do birds. Mammals are the only ones that do. So while a bite may require tetanus, you won't have to go through the rabies shots.
SOME MORE INFORMATION ON VENOMOUS SNAKES
~For pit vipers, between 20%-25% are dry bites. Coral snakes are around 50%. They are reluctant to use their venom for defensive purposes. Adults and hatchlings can control how much to inject, Their venom may seem more dangerous but it isn't. Juveniles may inject less because of their size, but it should be treated like the much bigger adults. Go to the hospital.
~Rattlesnakes don't always rattle in warning. Some may have their rattles broken off, or it's a dusky pygmy rattlesnake, which is so small their rattles sounds like insects buzzing around.
~There are a lot of people out there who will shoot or decapitate venomous snakes. Which is a shame, because they aren't dangerous unless you force them to be dangerous. Killing a snake increases your chance of getting bit 80 times more than the 0 times
a person has when they leave the snake alone.
~Please be careful when you're walking around outside or doing yard work. They have beautiful colors and patterns when out of their habitats. In it, they're so beautiful you can't see them. Habitat loss also forces them closer to humans than either of us feel comfortable with.
~If you're going to a park, make sure you have the numbers you need in case something should happen (not necessarily a snake bite) and be aware of state and federal laws concerning animals. For the most part harassing, handling, or taking animals out of park grounds is frowned upon. But taking pictures isn't. Also, keep in mind that you may be out of a cell service area.
~Snakes have no external ear openings, so technically, they can't hear. They do have a middle ear, since that is responsible for balance, so they can feel vibrations. For this reason, I recommend the very distinctive drumming stylings of Lars Ulrich of the band Metallica. Point the speakers toward the ground and turn it all the way up. At least a ten mile radius will be snake-free. Actually, you won't see a single animal.
~Statistics show that the ones most likely to get bit are white males between the ages of 15-30 who are inebriated enough to think that they would look mighty cool picking up a venomous snake. Needless to say, the snake has absolutely no hesitation whatsoever in not only biting, but instead giving them a good dose. Snakes aren't impressed with churches that think God will save them from a snakebite either. Indeed, snakes are fond of proving otherwise.
I encourage everyone to look and see what venomous snakes are found in the area you live in. Learn to identify them and their habits. It is easier to remember a couple of snakes than it is to remember the non-venomous ones. Armed with this knowledge, you will know how to lower your already low chances of running into one and what to do if you come up to one.
Learning the identity of the most common non-venomous snakes will also help. Some of them have unique ways of defending themselves that might alarm people.
And hopefully learning about snakes will keep you from panicking when you see one. You scream, they scream in a soundless kind of way. The both of you will run in opposite directions screaming.
Updated September 22, 2019 to add warning about Benadryl.