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How To Prevent and Treat Snake Bites

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Updated May 19, 2014

USA, Arizona, Sonoran Desert, western diamondback rattlesnake (crotalus atrox)
Tom Walker/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images
Snake bites can be deadly. It's important to react quickly to bites. If emergency medical services can be reached, request help through 911. If in a remote area, getting the victim to medical care is vital.

North America is home to several different species of venomous snakes. The most common is the rattlesnake. Antivenin is available, but it must be used as early as possible.

Time Required: N/A

Here's How:

  1. Safety first! Get away from the snake. That's probably why it bit in the first place. Follow universal precautions and wear personal protective equipment if you have it.
  2. Call 911 immediately! Waiting until the pain may lead to permanent tissue damage. Remember that calling 911 on a cell phone is different than a regular phone.
  3. Do not elevate. Keep the bite below the level of the heart.
  4. Wash the area with warm water and soap.
  5. Remove constricting clothing and jewelry from the extremity. The area may swell and constricting items will cause tissue death.
  6. If the snake is an elapid species (coral snakes and cobras), wrap the extremity with an elastic pressure bandage. Start from the point closest to the heart and wrap towards the fingers or toes. Continue to keep the bite lower than the heart.
  7. Follow the basics of first aid while waiting for responders to arrive. Be especially concerned about the potential for shock.

Tips:

  1. NO CUTTING & SUCKING! Those snake bite kits from the drug store don't work. Cutting into the wound will just create infections.
  2. An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of first aid:
    • Wear long pants and boots taller than the ankle.
    • Avoid tall brush and deep, dark crevices.
    • Make plenty of noise and vibration while walking.
    • Do not approach snakes, avoid them.
    • Do not expect rattlesnakes to make any noises.
  3. If the snake is dead, bringing it to the hospital is appropriate. Be careful, dead snakes can reflexively bite for up to an hour.
  4. In today's digital world, pictures are easy to get. A quick picture of the snake - even with a cell phone - will help medical crews identify the animal. Rattlesnakes are pit vipers, identified by dents in the side of their heads that look like ears. Coral snakes are small with bands of red bordered by pale yellow or white. Cobras have hoods that spread behind their heads.
  5. It's not that important to identify the snake; medical crews in areas prone to snake bites can often identify the animal just from the wound. Pit vipers have two fangs and the bite often has two small holes (see illustration). Coral snakes have small mouths full of teeth with rows of small puncture wounds.
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