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How to and More Importantly,
How NOT to Treat a Snakebite


I recently was advised that someone that was bitten by a Copperhead and when treated at the local hospital it was evident that the staff had no idea on how to treat the bite. It was purely by luck that one on the doctors at the hospital (but not part of the A&E staff is a keen herpetologist and knew how to correctly treat a bite. This was after ice was incorrectly used (it shouldn't have been used at all with a snake bite) and the patient after suffering much pain is now recovered.

The information below has been put together from numerous articles (all of them from medical and expert herpetologists). I hope that this article will help to remedy the situation, so that mistakes like the one related above happen less frequently.

Lets cover the most important part first:

What Not To Do

Though U.S. medical professionals may not agree on every aspect of what to do for snakebite first aid, they are nearly unanimous in their views of what not to do. Among their recommendations:

  • No ice or any other type of cooling on the bite. Research has shown this to be potentially harmful. The same applies for  hot  packs.
  • No tourniquets. This cuts blood flow completely and may result in loss of the affected limb.
  • No electric shock. This method is under study and has yet to be proven effective. It could harm the victim.
  • No incisions in the wound. Such measures have not been proven useful and may cause further injury.
  • Do not eat or drink anything unless advised by medical sources.
  • Do not engage in strenuous physical activity.
  • Do not drink any alcohol or use any medication.
  • Do not apply oral (mouth) suction to bite.
  • Do not remove dressings/elastic wraps until arrival at hospital and antivenom available.
  • Do not waste time or take any risks trying to kill or catch (to bring in) the snake responsible for the bite.
Arizona physician David Hardy, M.D., says part of the problem when someone is bitten is the element of surprise. "People often aren't trained in what to do, and they are in a panic situation." He adds that preparation--which includes knowing in advance how to get to the nearest hospital--could greatly reduce anxiety and lead to more effective care.

Now let's look at the advice on how to treat snakebite:

First Aid for Snakebites

"In the past five or 10 years, there's been a backing off in first aid from really invasive things like making incisions," says Arizona physician David Hardy, M.D., who studies snakebite epidemiology. "This is because we now know these things can do harm and we don't know if they really change the outcome."

Many health-care professionals embrace just a few basic first-aid techniques. According to the American Red Cross, these steps should be taken:

  • Wash the bite with soap and water.
  • Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart (if possible).
  • Get medical help.
"The main thing is to get to a hospital and don't delay," says Hardy. "Most bites don't occur in real isolated situations, so it is feasible to get prompt [medical care]." He describes cases in Arizona where people have caught rattlesnakes for sport and gotten bitten. "They waited until they couldn't stand the pain anymore and finally went to the hospital after the venom had been in there a few hours. But by then, they'd lost an opportunity for [effective treatment]," which increased the odds of long-term complications. Some medical professionals, along with the American Red Cross, cautiously recommend two other measures:
  • If a victim is unable to reach medical care within 30 minutes, a bandage, wrapped two to four inches above the bite, may help slow venom. The bandage should not cut off blood flow from a vein or artery. A good rule of thumb is to make the band loose enough that a finger can slip under it. The bandage should be a crepe or elastic bandage and should be wrapped as you would for a sprain.
  • A suction device may be placed over the bite to help draw venom out of the wound without making cuts. Suction instruments often are included in commercial snakebite kits.

What to Tell The Staff at the Hospital

  • Ask Staff to Contact Poison Control Immediately.
  • Locate nearest Antivenom/Antivenin Resource.
  • Ask staff to use physician consultants available through Poison Control.
  • Describe the snake to the consultant so that the correct antivenin can be administered (if needed and one is actually available for that species of snake).

Avoiding Snakebites

Some bites, such as those inflicted when snakes are accidentally stepped on or encountered in the wild are nearly impossible to prevent. But many experts say a few simple precautions can significantly lower the risk of being bitten:

  • Leave snakes alone. Many people are bitten because they try to kill a snake or get a closer look at it.
  • Stay out of tall grass unless you wear thick leather boots, and remain on hiking paths as much as possible.
  • Keep hands and feet out of areas you can't see. Don't pick up rocks or firewood unless you are out of a snake's striking distance. (A snake can strike around half its length)
  • Be cautious and alert when climbing rocks.
  • Be aware of which venomous snakes that are common to the area before you set out.
What do you do if you encounter a snake when walking, etc.? All you need to do is simply  walk around the snake, giving it a wide berth, say six foot or so and leave it alone. Whatever you do,  don't try to catch it or annoy it.

Where Can I find Out More?

This article is for informational purposes and no liability is assumed in its use. Always consult with a competent medical professional regarding health related issues. Because of its rarity, some doctors know little or nothing about snakebite management so one should always request that they contact a Poison Control Center and ask to be placed in direct telephone contact/consultation with a physician who is experienced in this area. A number of tragic deaths have occurred due to the lack of medical knowledge about snakebite by staff at many A&E/Hospitals.


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Last Updated: 04 April 2007