Expert Advice -- Snake Bites

I just moved to an area where rattlesnakes come in our yards once or twice each summer. I am concerned for my two-year-old daughter's safety. However, this is a neighborhood with a lot of children, and no one has gotten bitten yet. Some people told me to stomp my feet as I walk, but what do I do in case of a bite? Is there any antidote I should have at home?


Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

There are few animals and their bites that evoke as much strong emotion as snakes. Many people have a hard time just looking at them at the zoo, so the thought of coming face to face with one of these creatures is terrifying for some. Fortunately, only about 15 percent of all snake species in the United States are poisonous. Nonetheless, about 8000 people are bitten each year by poisonous snakes. Rattlesnakes, water moccasins, and copperhead snakes are responsible for the overwhelming majority of poisonous snake bites. So, if you live in an area where these pit vipers are common, it is a good idea to have a plan about what to do should you or your child be bitten by a snake.

The poisons within the snake venom differ with each species, but all essentially have a combination of enzymes which can break down tissues of the body and prevent nerves from correctly transmitting electrical signals. How much damage a bite inflicts depends upon where the bite is, how much and what type of venom is injected, and the size of the person bitten. However, most bites from pit viper snakes involve intense pain and swelling which develops over the first few minutes after the bite. Inspection of the bite usually reveals two puncture wounds from the fangs. This is not universal though because some bites from poisonous snakes can be more subtle.

Next: What to do when biten


When it comes to treatment of a bite from a poisonous snake, the most important thing to do is get to a medical facility. Over the years, a lot has been learned about how to optimally treat these bites, and time seems to be the most important factor. This is particularly true for children who have been bitten. The speed at which destruction of tissues in the body can occur may be so rapid that spending time trying to treat it may only delay adequate care. However, there are certainly times in which getting to an emergency room may be delayed. This being the case, there are a few things which can help limit the venom's effects:

• Keep the person completely at rest and calm. Movement of the body and a higher heart rate can more effectively distribute the venom, so limiting activity can help decrease its effects.

• If an arm or leg was bitten, remove the clothing and jewelry from the area and put it in a position at a level below the heart. This also will limit transport of the venom to other parts of the body.

• Unless a medical facility is many hours away, do not let the person take anything by mouth. If the person has to be put under general anesthesia later, it is best done on an empty stomach.

DO NOT apply a tight tourniquet to the arm or leg. More harm has come from arms or legs that didn't get enough blood supply for extended lengths of time. In experienced hands, a band that is tied tight enough to limit blood flow from the arm or leg but allow adequate blood flow to the extremity may be done. This is called constriction banding and should only be done by someone trained to do it.

• If possible, identify the snake. But remember, the most important thing about treating a snake bite is to get to an emergency room quickly. Spending too much time trying to catch the snake puts more people at risk for being bitten and may waste a lot of valuable time.

There are antidotes (called antivenin) to certain snake bites, but they are only administered by trained medical personnel. The most important thing is being as careful as you can about checking the environment surrounding your child's play area, and then being prepared should anyone be bitten. Know how to contact emergency services, and you may want to consider taking a first-aid course that teaches constriction banding.

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