The World Health Organization (WHO) just deemed snake bites to be one of the top 20 “neglected tropical diseases” in the world, joining the likes of rabies, leprosy, African sleeping sickness, Dengue fever and other diseases. (1) Globally, snakes kill more than 100,000 each year, and maim or cripple millions more. (2)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that venomous snakes bite somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 people in the United States each year, and about five die. The CDC notes that death rates from these poisonous snake bites would be significantly higher if people didn’t seek emergency medical care. (3)
Venomous Snakes in the United States
In the U.S., there are four types of venomous snakes: rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths/water moccasins and coral snakes.
Rattlesnake: The largest venomous snake in the U.S., rattlesnake bites are on the rise, but they do their best to alert before striking. If you hear a rattle and a hiss, chances are you’ve wandered into a rattlesnake’s territory. (4)
There are 29 species of the rattlesnake, found far and wide across the country. From grassy meadows in the Northeast to swamps in the Southeast — even in the mountains, as they can thrive at up to 11,000 feet in elevation. However, they are most prevalent in the Southwestern part of the U.S., notably Arizona, New Mexico and California. (5)
Because there are so many species of rattlesnakes, identifying them at a quick glance is challenging. They can range in length from just over a foot, to nearly eight feet, and markings vary from type to type. However, rattlesnakes do have a triangular head, unlike most other land-faring North American snakes.
Rattlesnakes like to make their homes in rocky crevices, and particularly like to sun themselves on rocks, or warm paved areas — like walking paths and sidewalks. The myth that they are only active during the day is simply that, a myth. In fact, during the summer rattlesnakes may be more active at night.
Most rattlesnake bites occur when someone steps on one. Day and night, it is important to watch where you walk, and when exercising outdoors, it is wise to keep the headphones off so you can hear the rattle and hiss.
Copperhead: A medium-sized snake, averaging between 2 and 3 feet in length, the copperhead is one of the more common snakes in the U.S. They are named for their copper-red head. Their lighter tan or salmon-toned body is crisscrossed with brown markings, similar to an hourglass or dumbbell. (6)
Copperheads thrive in areas from Texas to New England and seem to prefer forests or wooded areas, particularly with rocky areas near streams or rivers. In recent years, they’ve been proving they don’t mind suburban areas and are now thriving in wood piles, junkyards and even garages. They typically live in communal areas with many snakes sharing the same den.
Like the rattlesnake, many of copperheads will shake their tail before a strike, but without the rattle, it is just for show. However, some may release a very strong musk scent when agitated. During the spring and fall copperheads spend the day out hunting and basking in the sun; however, in the middle of summer, they often become nocturnal, making a strike harder to avoid.
Copperheads are more common and bite more people than any other species of snake. Thankfully, they have the mildest venom of all North American venomous snakes. But their bites still require emergency medical attention. Researchers have found that while many snakes — both venomous and nonvenomous — give a warning and prefer to retreat, copperheads prefer to stand their ground and strike. (7)
These snakes are very territorial, often returning to the same den year after year. Copperheads have a lifespan of around 18 years. So if you reside in an area where this venomous snake lives, keep your yard, underneath your deck, and garage free from clutter, wood piles, and the like to help prevent them from moving in and bringing friends. (8)
Cottonmouth/Water Moccasin. North America’s only poisonous water snake, the water moccasin, or cottonmouth, is at home both on shore and in the water. They are most commonly found in the southeastern United States, as far north as Virginia, and as far west as Texas. They like fresh water ponds, lakes, streams, swamps and marshes; however, they also dwell in drainage ditches.
Water moccasins can be aggressive, but they rarely bite humans. On land, they will coil and open their mouths wide, exposing the white cottony lining. This is why they are also known as cottonmouths. They range in length from 50 to 55 inches long and have a dark tan, brown or nearly black skin with cross bands of black or brown.
These venomous snakes use their time on land to soak up the warmth of the sun. They are often found basking in the sunshine lying on stones, logs or even hanging from tree branches. While in the water, they swim close to the top, with their heads out. During the summer months, they hunt after dark. (9)
Their venom can be deadly; the hemotoxins can prevent the blood from clotting, resulting in hemorrhaging throughout the circulatory system. If you are bitten, you must seek emergency medical attention immediately. There are a number of nonvenomous snakes that can be confused with the water moccasin; if you can safely take a photo, do so to show to your medical team. (10)
Coral Snakes. Small and colorful, coral snakes have the strongest venom of any snake in North America. They are second only to the black mamba, the snake with the most deadly venom on the planet. These small snakes are 18 inches to 20 inches long and are very slender, almost pencil-like. (11)
There are two types of coral snakes: the eastern coral snake and the western coral snake. Both species are reclusive, love marshy or wooded areas, or hiding under leaves, debris or in woodpiles. The eastern type is primarily found in the Southeast, from North Carolina to Florida, and west to parts of Texas. The western coral snake is mainly found in southern Arizona and the southwestern most tip of New Mexico. (12)
Both types of coral snakes have bright colored bands of yellow, red and sometimes black. Because there are several other non-venomous snakes in North America with similar colors, including the scarlet kingsnake and the milk snake, err on the side of caution if a snake bites you. Seek medical attention immediately as the coral snake’s venom is so dangerous. Don’t wait for symptoms to appear as they may not appear for 12 to 18 hours.
The venom of a coral snake is a neurotoxin, which can cause paralysis, respiratory failure and cardiac failure. Because these snakes are so brightly colored and are generally small and thin, they tend to attract young children. It is imperative that you teach your child to never handle a snake without adult supervision.
How Can You Tell If a Snake Is Venomous?
Most snakes in North America, are not poisonous. However, the four snakes mentioned above do have venom that can cause severe adverse health conditions — and even death — if not treated properly and promptly.
Whenever you are bitten by a snake, it is recommended that you seek emergency medical attention immediately; even nonvenomous snake bites can cause problems. Bacteria and viruses in snake mouths can lead to nasty infections and permanent scarring. After striking, a snake may stick around and try to strike again, or it may slither off. Do not attempt to catch a snake that’s bitten you as it may be venomous; you are only putting yourself and others at further risk.
It is virtually impossible, particularly in the heat of the moment, to accurately identify a snake. There are literally thousands of species, many of which appear similar to an untrained eye. That said, if you live in an area (or are traveling to one) that is known for venomous snakes, it is wise to learn the basic physical characteristics.
However, remember that snakes are nearly universally feared and when you encounter one, your adrenalin levels will increase, making it even more challenging to remain calm while trying to identify it. Always err on the side of caution after a snake bite. If possible, and without risking another bite, take a photo to show to the emergency responders.
What Happens When You Get Bitten By a Snake?
A snake can strike quickly, biting with extreme force, and then slither away just as fast. Many snake bites occur when people are working in their yards or gardens, when children are playing by a creek or in a wooded area, and when taking part in recreational activities. All of this to say that a snake can strike virtually any time, anywhere.
When you are first struck, you may notice two puncture wounds and experience quite shocking pain. Some describe the pain as being stung by a thousand bees, all in the same spot. Swelling and redness appear quite quickly with the most bites; however, when bitten by a coral snake, symptoms, including pain, may not appear for 12–18 hours.
If a venomous snake bites you, the bite will likely introduce venom into your system. This is called “envenomation.” Remaining calm, and being as still as possible is vital; the more active the victim of a bite is, the faster that the venom can spread throughout the body. If possible, carry the victim, even if the wound is not on the leg or foot.
Because even non-venomous snakes can carry bacteria and viruses in their mouths, it is highly recommended that all snake bites be treated by emergency personnel and physicians, even when symptoms seem mild, or non-existent.
Snake Bite Symptoms
The type of snake, whether it is venomous, and the physical condition of the victim all play a role in the symptoms that will arise. Just like with bee stings, some people can have an allergic reaction that can result in a life-threatening episode; seek medical attention immediately.
Rattlesnake: The venom of a rattlesnake contains neurotoxins that attack the nervous system. Symptoms include severe pain, drooping eyelids, low blood pressure, excessive thirst, tiredness, vision, difficulty swallowing and speaking, muscle weakness, difficulty breathing, and respiratory failure. A metallic taste, syncope, hematemesis (vomiting blood) and chest pain are possible. The severity of symptoms can change rapidly; fatalities are rare if treated promptly. (13)
Water Moccasins/Cottonmouths: Symptoms for a bite from this snake includes immediate pain, change in skin color, shock, low blood pressure and weakness. (14)
Copperheads: Like the symptoms of the water moccasin bite, victims experience immediate pain, change in skin color, shock, weakness and low blood pressure.
Coral Snake: Symptoms from a coral snake bite can be delayed for 12–18 hours. The neurotoxic effects cause difficulty speaking, muscle weakness, difficulty breathing, inability to move eyelids, convulsions, stomach pain, headache, shock, blurred vision, altered mental state, a twitching tongue, decreased oxygen saturation, paralysis and respiratory arrest. (15, 16)
- Certain occupations including farmers, construction workers, mechanics, landscapers, painters, roofers and groundskeepers. (17)
- Young children that don’t understand the potential dangers of snakes.
- Hikers, bikers and campers who aren’t aware of their surroundings.
- Gardeners pulling weeds, harvesting berries or other foods, mowing the lawn, or using a weed whacker.
- Walking through floodwaters or working in floodwaters after a natural disaster; snakes often seek refuge inside homes and garages to escape the rising waters.
Conventional Treatment for Snake Bites
The doctor will determine treatment after a snake bite by the type of snake, whether it was venomous, and whether the victim is showing any signs of distress. When bitten by a venomous snake, the first course of action is typically to clean the wound and then monitor the patient for an extended period. The administration of an antivenin, or antivenom, is not automatic.
Rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins are all pit vipers, and if necessary, CroFab will be given after envenomation. This is the only antivenom approved by the FDA for pit viper strikes. There is currently a shortage of antivenin treatments for coral snake bites; the medical team will address the treatment plan individually.
Rattlesnake: During the examination, the doctor may order an ECG, as well as a head computerized tomography scan (CT scan) if the patient presents with a headache or shows signs of altered consciousness. The patient may also require intravenous (IV) fluids, including antibiotics, breathing support, and treatment of low blood pressure and shock. A surgical procedure where the fascia is cut may be necessary if circulation is compromised. (18, 19)
Cottonmouth/Water Moccasin: Administration of anti-venom serum is generally recommended for cottonmouth snake bites. The venom of this species can destroy tissue at the bite site. Pain and anxiety are normal and may result in tachycardia. Health care professionals will conduct blood tests and take bacterial cultures at the bite site. The doctor may order an EC. Intravenous fluids will likely be given. The doctor may prescribe intravenous antibiotics. Treatment of other symptoms including low blood pressure and shock may also be required. (20)
Copperhead: Typically, after a thorough cleansing of the copperhead bite wound, the doctor will observe the patient carefully for any signs that symptoms are worsening. The medical team will manage the patient’s pain, anxiety and changes in blood pressure. For copperhead bites, the administration of antivenin is typically not necessary, unless complications arise. The doctor may prescribe intravenous antibiotics. Surgery for wound complications also may be required. (21)
Coral Snake: Currently, Wyeth’s North American Coral Snake Antivenin — the only FDA-approved antivenin for coral snakes in the United States — is in incredibly short supply. Wyeth discontinued production and a replacement antivenin is not scheduled for release until sometime in 2018, at the earliest. (22)
As coral snake venom can cause significant adverse health events, seeking emergency medical intervention immediately is imperative. Symptoms may not arise for up to 18 hours, but don’t wait as the severity of the symptoms progress at an alarming rate. Medical professionals will monitor cardiac and oxygen levels. They may insert breathing tubes into the patient if the patient’s breathing is labored or restricted.
Non-venomous Snake: Before seeking emergency medical attention, wash the bite site thoroughly with warm water and soap. Rinse well and pat dry. Cover with a clean, dry bandage. Keeping the bite victim calm and still is important. Go to the ER where physicians will further clean and dress the wound, examine to ensure a fang hasn’t broken off in the wound, and treat any symptoms that may arise. Even non-venomous snakes may transmit bacteria or viruses that are harmful. (23)
5 Natural Treatments to Relieve Symptoms of Snake Bites
1. Lavender Essential Oil. Feeling stress and anxiety is universal after a snake bite. Remaining calm, and still is essential, particularly when bitten by a venomous snake as an increased heart rate can cause the toxins to spread more quickly. Use a few drops of lavender essential oil or another essential oil for anxiety behind the ears, or just sniff directly out of the bottle to speed relief.
2. Tea Tree Oil. After a bite, cleaning the area thoroughly is important. Using a natural antibacterial cleanser, specifically one that contains tea tree oil, can be helpful. Wrap with a clean dry bandage; do not wrap too tightly. Follow directions if 911 instruct you not to cleanse the area, particularly after a rattlesnake, copperhead, coral snake or water moccasin bite. (24)
3. Echinacea. Echinacea is a powerful immune system booster, pain reliever and anti-inflammatory. It fights infections and is useful in wound healing. Research shows that Echinacea purpura root extract reduces regulatory T cell numbers and function, enhancing immune system function. If you’ve been treated for a venomous snake bite, talk to your doctor before taking an echinacea supplement as it may interact with prescribed medications. Follow the recommended guidelines for dosing and only purchase high-quality echinacea supplements. (25)
4. Coconut Oil. It fights bacteria, viruses, and parasites and coconut oil has been shown to aid in the healing of wounds. Apply a small amount of coconut oil to the wound and wrap with a bandage to speed healing. A study published in the journal Skin Pharmacology and Physiology found that when applied topically, virgin coconut oil-treated wounds healed much faster than the two other control groups. (26)
5. Turmeric. After a trauma where you absorb a toxin — like a snake bite — you may feel inflammation, pain and continuing adverse effects for days, weeks or even months. Taking a high-quality turmeric supplement and adding turmeric to your diet can help ease the pain and reduce inflammation. However, if the bite was from a venomous snake, check with your doctor prior to taking it as some types of snake venom affect blood coagulation. (27), (28)
Precautions: Snake Bite First Aid
Snake bites from venomous and non-venomous snakes can cause long-lasting health problems and even death. Seeking proper medical treatment as soon as possible is imperative. When bitten by a snake, follow these guidelines provided by the Mayo Clinic:
- Remove tight clothing and jewelry before swelling begins.
- Remain calm and move away from the snake. They can, and will, strike again.
- Keep the bite area at or below the level of the heart.
- Clean the wound, but don’t flush it with water.
- Do not use a tourniquet.
- Do not apply ice or heat.
- Apply a clean, dry bandage.
- Do not take any pain medication or allergy medication.
- Do not cut the wound or attempt to remove the venom.
- Avoid caffeine or alcohol as this will speed the rate of absorption of the toxin.
- Keep as still as possible; carry the victim, if possible, to get help.
- Do not try to capture the snake; take a picture if it is safe to do so, or make a note of color, markings and shape of the head.
- With a marker, draw a border around redness, swelling and bruising every 15 minutes.
Rattlesnake: More than 25 percent of all rattlesnake bite victims experience some permanent physical or physiological complications. Mark the advancing edema every 15 minutes; minimize movements and transport the patient quickly to an ER. Do not suck the venom out and do not use a tourniquet for a rattlesnake bite. (29)
Cottonmouth/Water Moccasin: Temporary or permanent tissue damage is possible with a cottonmouth or water moccasin bite. This can result in permanent muscle damage, internal bleeding and even the loss of an extremity. Seeking immediate emergency medical attention is vital. Do not try to remove the venom, do not use a tourniquet, and keep the patient as still and calm as possible.
Copperhead: A bite from a copperhead disrupts red blood cells causing swelling, injury to tissue, blood coagulation problems, pain and abnormally low blood pressure. Medical attention is necessary after a bite. (30)
Coral Snake: Seek emergency medical attention immediately; coral snake bites contain a neurotoxin that disrupts the connection between muscles and the brain leading to muscular paralysis and possible respiratory or cardiac failure. Symptoms may not occur for hours after the bite; however, the sooner medical intervention takes place, the better the outcome. (31)
Final Thoughts on Snake Bites
- Snakes typically bite when we wander into their space and they feel threatened.
- They commonly bite when stepped on or when their habitat is disturbed.
- Snakes can still bite after they are dead; the reflex can remain for several hours after death.
- Do not try to capture a snake that has bitten; take a photo if it is safe to do so.
- When traveling overseas, learn about venomous snakes in the area — including their appearance, habitat and the time of day they are most active.
- Pets are susceptible to snake bites, too; take them to an emergency vet for treatment.
- SnakeBite911, a free app for your smartphone, may help you in the event of an emergency to identify the snake and get emergency support.
- If any of the following severe symptoms occur after being bit by a snake, call 911 immediately.
- Respiratory distress
- Throat spasms
- Cyanosis — a bluish discoloration around the bite area, or around lips or tongue
- Always treat snake bites like they are venomous; seek emergency medical attention immediately.