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Snake Bites

Facts about snake bites:

Each year, approximately 8,000 people receive bites from venomous snakes in the United States, mostly between April and October. Even a bite from a nonvenomous snake can cause infection or allergic reaction in some people. The most important thing to remember for snake bites is to treat all snake bites as if they were venomous and get to a hospital emergency room as quickly as possible, especially if you are unsure of the exact type of snake responsible for the bite. With the correct treatment (or antivenin), severe illness and/or death can be prevented. (Antivenin is an antitoxin specific to the venom of a particular animal or insect).

People who frequent wilderness areas, camp, hike, picnic, or live in snake-inhabited areas should be aware of the potential dangers posed by venomous snakes. These people should:

  • Know how to identify venomous snakes.
  • Have access to transportation and medical assistance in case of emergency.

What snakes are venomous?

Only about 5 percent, or roughly 25 species of snakes in the U.S. are venomous. The most common venomous snakebites are caused by the following snakes:

  • Pit vipers--rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouth (water moccasin) snakes
  • Coral snakes

Rattlesnake bites cause most of the venomous bites in the U.S. Coral snakes cause less than 1 percent of venomous snakebites.

What are the symptoms of snake bites?

Symptoms will vary depending on the type of snake bite, amount of venom injected, and size and general health of the snake bite victim. Some snake bite victims may not have symptoms for a period of time. Symptoms may include any of the following:

  • Bloody wound discharge
  • Fang marks in the skin
  • Swelling at the site of the bite which may progress to an entire extremity within hours
  • Severe localized pain, burning and warmth
  • Discoloration, such as redness and bruising
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the area
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fever or chills
  • Weakness, dizziness, or fainting
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Numbness and tingling, especially in the mouth 
  • Altered mental state
  • Generalized bleeding or hemorrhage
  • Seizures
  • Shock

Treatment for venomous snake bites:

Remain calm and reassure your child that you can help. Specific treatment for a snake bite will be determined by your child's physician. Treatment may include:

  • Move the child to a nearby safe area, away from the snake.
  • Call for emergency assistance immediately. Antivenin should be given within four hours when possible. It is not usually effective if given more than 12 hours after the bite. While waiting for emergency assistance:
    • Have your child lie down, rest, and keep calm.
    • Wash the bite with soap and water.
    • Keep warm and avoid cooling the area to prevent further tissue damage.
    • Remove all rings, watches, and constrictive clothing in case of swelling.
    • Loosely immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.
    • Do not give your child anything to eat or drink.
    • Monitor heart rate and breathing.
    • Note the time of the bite so that it can be reported to an emergency room physician if needed.
    • If possible, try to remember to draw a circle around the affected area and mark the time of the bite and the initial reaction. If you are able, redraw the circle around the site of injury marking the progression of time.
    • It is helpful to remember what the snake looks like, its size, and the type of snake, in order to inform the emergency room staff.
    • Do not apply a tourniquet.

Once in the hospital, treatment may include the use of antivenin, an antitoxin specific to the venom of a particular animal or insect. Treatment may also include lab work, pain or sedation medications, tetanus booster, antibiotics, and supportive care.

Preventing snake bites:

Some bites, such as those inflicted when your child accidentally steps on a snake in the woods, are nearly impossible to prevent. However, there are precautions that can reduce your child's chances of being bitten by a snake. These include:

  • Teach your child to leave snakes alone. Often people are bitten because they try to kill a snake or get too close to it.
  • Make sure your child stays out of tall grass unless he or she wears thick leather boots. Try to ensure that your child remains on hiking paths as much as possible.
  • Do not allow your child to place his or her hands and feet in areas he or she cannot see. Picking up rocks or firewood should be avoided.
  • Reinforce caution and alertness when your child is climbing rocks.

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