What are snake bites?
About 7,000 venomous snake bite cases are reported every year in the United States. A bite from a venomous snake is rarely deadly — about 6 fatalities are reported every year — but it should always be treated as a medical emergency. Even a bite from a harmless snake can be serious, leading to an allergic reaction or an infection. Venomous snake bites can produce an array of symptoms, including localized pain and swelling, convulsions, nausea, and even paralysis.
How common are snake bites?
Snake bites are extremely common. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of snake bites?
Bites by venomous snakes result in a wide range of effects, from simple puncture wounds to life-threatening illness and death. The findings following a venomous snakebite can be misleading. A victim can have no initial significant symptoms, and then suddenly develop breathing difficulty and go into shock.
Signs and symptoms of snake poisoning can be broken into a few major categories:
- Local effects: Bites by vipers and some cobras (Naja and other genera) are painful and tender. They can be severely swollen and can bleed and blister. Some cobra venoms can also kill the tissue around the site of the bite.
- Bleeding: Bites by vipers and some Australian elapids can cause bleeding of internal organs such as the brain or bowels. A victim may bleed from the bite site or bleed spontaneously from the mouth or old wounds. Unchecked bleeding can cause shock or even death.
- Nervous system effects: Venom from elapids and sea snakes can affect the nervous system directly. Cobra (Naja and other genera) and mamba (Dendroaspis) venom can act particularly quickly by stopping the breathing muscles, resulting in death without treatment. Initially, victims may have vision problems, speaking and breathing trouble, and numbness.
- Muscle death: Venom from Russell’s vipers (Daboia russellii), sea snakes, and some Australian elapids can directly cause muscle death in multiple areas of the body. The debris from dead muscle cells can clog the kidneys, which try to filter out the proteins. This can lead to kidney failure.
- Eyes: Spitting cobras and ringhals (cobralike snakes from Africa) can actually eject their venom quite accurately into the eyes of their victims, resulting in direct eye pain and damage.
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
Any snakebite victim should go to a hospital emergency department unless the snake is positively identified by an expert as nonvenomous. Remember, misidentification of the snake species could be a fatal error.
Bites by nonvenomous species require good wound care. Victims should receive a tetanus booster.
What causes snake bites?
Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What increases my risk for snake bites?
Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How are snake bites diagnosed?
Diagnosis of snakebite is made based on the history of the event. Identification or description of the snake would be helpful, because not all snakes are venomous, and because different kinds of antivenom exist for different species of snakes. In Australia, the doctor may use a kit to determine the specific type of snake. The doctor also looks for evidence of fang marks or local trauma in the area of the bite. Pain and swelling accompany many snakebites.
The doctor treats breathing problems, shock, and/or immediately life-threatening injuries even before a full workup is complete.
The wound needs to be examined and cleaned.
The doctor will likely send blood and urine samples to the laboratory to look for evidence of bleeding, problems in the blood clotting system, kidney problems, or muscle death. These problems may not be initially apparent, but can have dire consequences if missed.
The victim is monitored to look for worsening symptoms at the wound site, or worsening systemic symptoms in the breathing or cardiovascular systems.
A rare complication in very swollen limbs is compartment syndrome. Limbs are divided into compartments of muscles, blood vessels, and nerves. Severe swelling can cut off the blood circulation to a compartment. When the circulation is cut off, the victim usually has severe pain and numbness. Later, the limb may get white and cold. If not treated in time, the limb may need to be amputated.
How are snake bites treated?
The doctor treats life-threatening conditions first. A victim with difficulty breathing may need a tube placed in his or her throat and a ventilator machine used to help with breathing. People who are in shock require intravenous fluids and possibly other medicines to maintain blood flow to vital organs.
The doctor gives antivenom to victims with significant symptoms if appropriate and available. This therapy can be lifesaving or limb-saving. Antivenom can occasionally also cause allergic reactions, however, or even anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening type of shock requiring immediate medical treatment with epinephrine and other medications.
Antivenom can also cause serum sickness within 5-10 days of therapy. Serum sickness causes fevers, joint aches, itching, swollen lymph nodes, and fatigue, but it is not life threatening.
Even victims without significant symptoms need to be monitored for several hours, and some people need to be admitted to the hospital for overnight observation.
The doctor cleans the wound and looks for broken fangs or dirt. A tetanus shot is required if the victim has not had one within 5 years. Some wounds may require antibiotics to help prevent infection.
Rarely, the doctor may need to consult a surgeon if there is evidence of compartment syndrome. If treatment with limb elevation and medicines fails, the surgeon may need to cut through the skin into the affected compartment, a procedure called a fasciotomy. This procedure can relieve the increased limb swelling and pressure, potentially saving the arm or leg.
Next steps — follow-up
A snakebite victim who has been released from the hospital should return to medical care immediately if he or she develops any worsening symptoms, especially trouble breathing, change in mental status, evidence of bleeding, worsening pain, or worsening swelling.
Someone who has received antivenom treatment for snakebite should return to medical care if any signs of serum sickness develop (fever, muscle or joint aches or swelling, hives). This complication usually occurs within 5-10 days after administration of antivenom.
A snakebite victim (particularly a rattlesnake bite) should, for the first few weeks, warn his or her physician of this fact before any routine or emergency surgery. Some snake venoms can cause difficulty in blood-clotting for a week or more after the bite.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage snake bites?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with snake bites:
- Do not attempt to handle, capture, or tease venomous snakes or snakes of unknown identity.
- Snakebites are often associated with alcohol use. Alcohol intake can weaken your inhibitions, making it more likely that you might attempt to pick up a snake. Alcohol also decreases your coordination, increasing the probability of a mishap.
- If you are outdoors, you can help prevent significant bites by wearing boots while hiking. Long pants can reduce the severity of a bite. When in snake country, be cautious where you place your hands and feet (for example, when gathering firewood or collecting berries), and never walk barefoot after dark.
- If your occupation or hobby exposes you to dangerous snakes on a regular basis, preplanning before a potential bite may save your life. Since not every physician is familiar with snakebites and not every hospital has or knows how to obtain antivenom, providing information regarding the type of snake, type of venom, and the procurement and use of antivenom can help the medical staff treat you.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Snakebite. http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/snakebite#3-4. Accessed August 25, 2017.
Snake Bites. http://www.healthline.com/health/snake-bites#overview1. Accessed August 25, 2017.
Snakebites: First aid. http://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-snake-bites/basics/art-20056681. Accessed August 25, 2017.
Review Date: September 6, 2017 | Last Modified: September 6, 2017