How to Treat Snakebites From Venomous Snakes

Learn how to identify the four venomous snakes in the United States, how to avoid getting bit and how to treat a snakebite.

| May/June 1982

Few creatures are as universally feared as poisonous serpents, but the fact is that snakebite is a far cry from the "certain death" that many people consider it to be. To begin with, the chances of being bitten by any snake — venomous or not — are slim.

Unfortunately, the only available statistics on the effects of venomous snakebite are nearly 20 years old and thus outdated, but if the ratio recorded then still holds true, only one bite in 3,000 is likely to be fatal, while some 10 to 20 percent produce no effect whatsoever, even if the snake's fangs do penetrate the skin! Fatalities occur most often when elderly people, individuals who are ill or small children are bitten — or when a person who is struck receives no treatment. Authorities estimate that — in the U.S. — there are no more than 12 to 15 deaths from snakebite per year.


Know What Kinds of Snakes are Common in Your Region

The best way to deal with snakebite is, of course, to avoid getting bitten in the first place. Perhaps the best way to do that is to know the various serpents and recognize their preferred habitats.


Of the four venomous snake types in the U.S., three — the various water moccasins, copperheads and rattlesnakes — are pit vipers and share some common characteristics. All have [a] a pit — or hole — between the eye and nostril, which is heat-sensitive and helps the snake locate prey (these reptiles are also very responsive to vibrations, but can't actually "hear"), [b] vertical pupils in their eyes, [c] wedge-shaped heads that are wider than their necks and [d] hinged poison fangs that lie flat against the roof of the mouth when the jaws are closed, then snap forward and erect when the mouth is opened. In addition, all three have a venom that's destructive to blood and tissue and produces symptoms within a few minutes after being injected.

The most common pit viper in the United States, and the poisonous snake responsible for the greatest number of bites, is the rattlesnake. There are approximately 20 species and subspecies of rattlers: Some are light, some dark, some marked with diamonds, while others are blotched or banded. But, all may be recognized by the horny string of interlocking, loosely fitted rattles at the end of the tail. When vibrated rapidly, these rattles produce a distinctive buzzing sound, but — contrary to legend — the snake may or may not choose to vibrate its tail when disturbed. Chief among this group of reptiles are the eastern and western diamondbacks, which are large and capable of injecting a sizable amount of poison with one bite.

The copperhead is, by some standards, a rather handsome snake and the only one in the U.S. whose hourglass markings are positioned with the constricted portion of the design down the midline of its back, as though someone had bent the hourglass across its spine and down on either side. The color can vary from almost pink to dark chestnut brown, with only some specimens having the bright copper-colored head that gives the species its common name.

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