Since Adam and Eve, snakes have long been portrayed as evil
creatures to be feared. Our history is long, and myths and
phobias are hard to break. Built into their religious practice,
Pentecostal Movement preachers in the hills of Tennessee handle
rattlesnakes. They now struggle with local law enforcement
since rattlesnakes are protected in many states. Aboriginal
groups in Australia hold the snake in high esteem, and it
is a symbol of fertility. Native Americans felt that snakes
symbolized life cycles and truth.
There are widespread myths regarding snakes:
Snake Bite Facts
- Snakes hold their tails in their mouths to create a circle
and will chase you.
- When you kill a snake, another one will chase you (ironically,
what IS true is excessive killing of snakes leads to the
overpopulation of rodents and more disease
- In the United States, only about 12 people a year die
- The estimated chances of dying from a snakebite in the
outdoors is approximately 1:10 million.
- Victims of snakebites in North America usually have two
common denominators, tattoos and alcohol intake.
- There are approximately 23 different subspecies of rattlesnakes
in the United States including the coral snake, copperhead
and cottonmouth (or water moccasin), which comprise the
venomous snakes indigenous to the United States. We emphasize
indigenous to the United States in that due to the internet,
more and more exotic/foreign snakes are being brought into
the United States illegally. This is an extremely dangerous
practice, posing enormous diagnostic and treatment risk
for emergency rooms across the United States. Every month,
there are incidents that occur where someone is tired of
their exotic and most likely illegally owned pet and releases
it, or possibly it escapes. Example: A few months ago, a
friend of Survive Outdoors from Indiana was helping someone
move when he found a king cobra in the bushes outside of
the home. The cobra was poised and ready to strike; luckily
no one was bitten.
There are two types of venomous snakes, falling into two
separate categories, the pit vipers which include the rattlesnakes,
copperheads and coppermouths, and the elapids, which are coral
The pit viper has thermoreceptors, or “pits,”
on their heads. These organs help the snake locate prey and
adjust the amount of venom used according to the size of their
prey. The glands, or venom sacks are connected to the fangs,
which act like hollow hypodermic needles. These fangs are
voluntarily controlled by the snake. They can raise either
one or both fangs, or neither. When fangs break off, there
is usually another fang below, or there may be one next to
it. Therefore, snakebites can present as one puncture wound,
two, three or even four (see photo of timber rattlesnake for
example of multiple fangs).
The pit viper can strike about 50% of its body length, and
has been recorded to strike at about 7 feet per second. The
forked tongue is equivalent to our nose. The snake senses
chemicals in the air with their tongue, aiding in the location
of prey. Their pupils are elliptical, and all pit vipers in
the United States have elliptical pupils, as opposed to non-venomous
snakes which have round pupils.
The age of a rattlesnake cannot be determined by the number
of rattles. Rattles frequently break off, and therefore is
an unreliable method to determine age.
Elapids in the United States consist only of the coral snake.
They have red, yellow and black bands around their bodies.
King snakes are very similar in color. However there is a
slight difference in band sequence. Mnemonics have been created
to aid in remembering the differences, such as “red
on yellow, kill a fellow, red on black, venom lack,”
or “red on yellow, kill a fellow, red on black, friend
It is best not to pick up any snake, thereby greatly reducing
your chance of being bitten.
Elapid fangs are fixed as opposed to the retractable fangs
of the pit viper, and are much smaller. A coral snake must
chew on its victim to inject enough venom to cause damage.
Small children are bitten by handling the snake, and due to
its attractive coloring, it becomes a visual “draw”
for the child, who wants to pick up the “sparkling gemstone.”
Venoms of the pit viper contain peptides and proteins. The
venom leads to damage of vascular cells and red blood cells.
Proteolytic enzymes damage muscle and are responsible for
tissue death. There is also a histamine release by the body
after the bite.
Juvenile rattlesnakes do have more toxic venom; however,
they do not inject the large amount of venom as adult rattlesnakes
Coral Snake Bite Symptoms
Coral snake venom is different than pit viper venom. As per
Auerback, it is thought that adult coral snakes carry enough
venom to kill 4-5 adults. The coral snake venom is primarily
a neurotoxin. Fang marks are rarely seen. Swelling is rare.
Symptoms may not occur until 10-14 hours later. Symptoms may
begin as nausea, vomiting and sweating. Neurological symptoms
may include lethargy, difficulty speaking, hard to swallow,
drooping eyelids, and in severe cases, respiratory depression
Dry bites are referred to as “misses,” no venom
injected due to the lack of venom, a glancing blow, or penetration
could not occur because of the clothing worn by the individual.
Dry bites account for about 20-30% of all snakebites.
Pit Viper Bite Symptoms
There are many symptoms associated with the bite of a pit
viper. Fang marks are always present, followed by swelling,
pain, and black and blue marks on the skin. Sweating, chills
and muscle twitching are commonly seen. Some feel numbness
on the tongue, and reports of a metallic taste are not uncommon.
Snakebite Treatment for Pit Vipers
Snakebite Treatment for Coral Snakes
- General support/reassurance; keep the victim calm; move
the individual away from the snake, if possible; do not
try to kill the snake—two people being bitten is worse
and you cannot aid the first victim (note: amputated snake
heads can still bite as a reflex).
- Minimize all activity.
- All jewelry, rings, bracelets and watches should be removed
- Do not incise the wound as this causes more tissue damage.
- Do not use electrical shock at the bite site as that
has been shown not to work.
- Sawyer extractor kits are controversial. Studies on pigs
have shown little to no effect, while others recommend to
only use the suction device if you can reach the victim
in the first 3 minutes.
- Do not suction with your mouth as the bacterial in your
mouth will most likely cause more harm.
- Apply cool compresses, not ice.
Australian wrap method has proven benefit. Please see diagram.
Do not wrap too tightly, but similar to wrapping a sprain.
- Splint is very important. Immobilize the extremity, maintain
the extremity at heart level, do not elevate above heart
- Do not use Anti-venom in the outdoors. Many have anaphylactic
type reactions from the anti-venom.
- Transport, transport, transport.
- Call ahead if possible to the ER. Many emergency rooms
do not stock anti-venom and they may need to fly anti-venom
- Anti-venom is very, very expensive. When traveling into
the outdoors for an extended period of time, check into
search and rescue insurance. Many times anti-venom is covered.
It is as cheap as $12-20 for a weekend, and is well worth
it if something unfortunate should occur.
- Remember, bite symptoms from this snake are usually delayed.
- In this situation, if possible, it could be very helpful
to capture the snake for identification purposes since it
does mimic the king snake.
- The Australian wrap method is highly touted for this
- Transport, transport, transport.
- All other treatment for the coral snake should be the
same as for the pit viper.
Snakes, like sharks, have a bad reputation, as the media
love to sensationalize these critters. Fear sells. If you
see a snake, please do not kill it! It does a tremendous amount
of good, compared to any harm done. Understand reality and
not fall prey to your fears and phobias.
1. Paul S. Auerbach, Wilderness