Snake bites occur when a snake bites the skin. They are medical emergencies if the snake is venomous.
Venomous animals account for a large number of deaths and injuries, worldwide. Snakes alone are estimated to inflict 2.5 million venomous bites each year, resulting in about 125,000 deaths. The actual number may be much larger. Southeast Asia, India, Brazil, and areas of Africa have the most deaths due to snakebite.
Snake bites can be deadly if not treated quickly. Children are at higher risk for death or serious complications due to snake bites because of their smaller body size.
The right antivenom can save a person's life. Getting to an emergency room as quickly as possible is very important. If properly treated, many snake bites will not have serious effects.
Venomous snake bites include bites by any of the following:
All snakes will bite when threatened or surprised, but most will usually avoid people if possible, and only bite as a last resort.
Snakes found in and near water are often mistaken as being venomous. Most species of snake are harmless and many bites are not life-threatening, but unless you are absolutely sure that you know the species, treat it seriously.
Symptoms depend on the type of snake, but may include:
Rattlesnake bites are painful when they occur. Symptoms usually begin right away and may include:
Cottonmouth and copperhead bites are painful right when they occur. Symptoms, which usually begin right away, may include:
Coral snake bites may be painless at first. Major symptoms may not develop for hours. Do NOT make the mistake of thinking you will be fine if the bite area looks good and you are not in a lot of pain. Untreated coral snake bites can be deadly. Symptoms may include:
1. Keep the person calm. Reassure them that bites can be effectively treated in an emergency room. Restrict movement, and keep the affected area below heart level to reduce the flow of venom.
2. If you have a pump suction device (such as that made by Sawyer), follow the manufacturer's directions.
3. Remove any rings or constricting items, because the affected area may swell. Create a loose splint to help restrict movement of the area.
4. If the area of the bite begins to swell and change color, the snake was probably venomous.
5. Monitor the person's vital signs -- temperature, pulse, rate of breathing, and blood pressure -- if possible. If there are signs of shock (such as paleness), lay the person flat, raise the feet about a foot, and cover the person with a blanket.
6. Get medical help right away.
7. Bring in the dead snake only if this can be done safely. Do not waste time hunting for the snake, and do not risk another bite if it is not easy to kill the snake. Be careful of the head when transporting it -- a snake can actually bite for several hours after it's dead (from a reflex).
Call 911 or your local emergency number if someone has been bitten by a snake. If possible, call ahead to the emergency room so that antivenom can be ready when the person arrives.
You may also call the National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222). The center can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts. They will give you further instructions.
This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Bites - snakes
Tintinalli JE, Kelen GD, Stapczynski JS, Ma OJ, Cline DM. Reptile bites. In: Tintinalli JE, Kelen GD, Stapczynski JS, Ma OJ, Cline DM, eds. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2004:chap 195.
Otten EJ. Venomous animal injuries. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al., eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2013:chap 62.
Updated by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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