Snake Bite Survival

Feature | Snake Bite Survival

In a grid-down scenario, you will find yourself out in the woods a lot more frequently, gathering firewood, hunting, and foraging for edible wild plants.  As such, we will likely encounter a snake or two.  Most snakes aren’t poisonous, but even non-venomous snake bites have potential for infection.

Poison is, perhaps, the wrong word to use here; venom and poisons are not the same thing. Poisons are absorbed by the skin or digestive system, but venoms must enter the tissues or blood directly. Therefore, it is usually not dangerous to drink snake venom unless you have, say, a cut in your mouth (don’t try it, though).

North America has two kinds of venomous snakes:  The pit vipers (rattlesnakes, water moccasins) and Elapids (coral snakes).  One or more of these snakes can be found almost everywhere in the continental U.S. A member of another viper family, the common adder, is the only venomous snake in Britain, but it and other adders are common throughout Europe (except for Ireland, thanks to St. Patrick).

These snakes generally have hollow fangs through which they deliver venom. Snakes are most active during the warmer months and, therefore, most bite injuries are seen then.  Not every bite from a venomous snake transfers its poison to the victim; 25-30% of these bites will show no ill effects.  This probably has to do with the duration of time the snake has its fangs in its victim.

An ounce of prevention, they say, is worth a pound of cure.  Be sure to wear good solid high-top boots and long pants when hiking in the wilderness. Treading heavily creates ground vibrations and noise, which will often cause snakes to hit the road. Snakes have no outer ear, so they “hear” ground vibrations better than those in the air caused by, for instance, shouting.

Many snakes are active at night, especially in warm weather.  Some activities of daily survival, such as gathering firewood, are inadvisable without a good light source. In the wilderness, it’s important to look where you’re putting your hands and feet.  Be especially careful around areas where snakes might like to hide, such as hollow logs, under rocks, or in old shelters. Wearing heavy gloves would be a reasonable precaution.

A snake doesn’t always slither away after it bites you.  It’s likely that it still has more venom that it can inject, so move out of its territory or abolish the threat in any way you can. Killing the snake, however, may not render it harmless: it can reflexively bite for a period of time, even if its head has been severed from its body.

Snake bites that cause a burning pain immediately are likely to have venom in them.  Swelling at the site may begin as soon as five minutes afterwards, and may travel up the affected area.  Pit viper bites tend to cause bruising and blisters at the site of the wound.  Numbness may be noted in the area bitten, or perhaps on the lips or face.  Some victims describe a metallic or other strange taste in their mouths.

With pit vipers, bruising is not uncommon and a serious bite might start to cause spontaneous bleeding from the nose or gums.  Coral snake bites, however, will cause mental and nerve issues such as twitching, confusion and slurred speech.  Later, nerve damage may cause difficulty with swallowing and breathing, followed by total paralysis.

Coral snakes appear very similar to their look-alike, the non-venomous king snake.  They both have red, yellow and black bands and are commonly confused with each other.  The old saying goes: ”red touches yellow, kill a fellow; red touches black, venom it lacks”.  This adage only applies to coral snakes in North America, however.

Coral snakes are not as aggressive as pit vipers and will prefer fleeing to attacking.  Once they bite you, however, they tend to hold on; Pit vipers prefer to bite and let go quickly. Unlike coral snakes, pit vipers may not relinquish their territory to you, so prepare to possibly be bitten again.

The treatment for a venomous snake bite is “Anti-venin”, an animal or human serum with antibodies capable of neutralizing a specific biological toxin. This product will probably be unavailable in a long-term survival situation.

The following strategy, therefore, will be useful:

  •  Keep the victim calm. Stress increases blood flow, thereby endangering the patient by speeding the venom into the system.
  •  Stop all movement of the injured extremity. Movement will move the venom into the circulation faster, so do your best to keep the limb still.
  •  Clean the wound thoroughly to remove any venom that isn’t deep in the wound, and
  •  Remove rings and bracelets from an affected extremity. Swelling is likely to occur.
  •  Position the extremity below the level of the heart; this also slows the transport of venom.
  •  Wrap with compression bandages as you would an orthopedic injury, but continue it further up the limb than usual. Bandaging begins two to four inches above the bite (towards the heart), winding around and moving up, then back down over the bite and past it towards the hand or foot.
  •  Keep the wrapping about as tight as when dressing a sprained ankle. If it is too tight, the patient will reflexively move the limb, and move the venom around.
  •  Do not use tourniquets, which will do more harm than good.
  •  Draw a circle, if possible, around the affected area.  As time progresses, you will see improvement or worsening at the site more clearly. This is a useful strategy to follow any local reaction or infection.

The limb should then be rested, and perhaps immobilized with a splint or sling.  The less movement there is, the better. Keep the patient on bed rest, with the bite site lower than the heart for 24-48 hours. This strategy also works for bites from venomous lizards, like Gila monsters.

It is no longer recommended to make an incision and try to suck out the venom with your mouth.  If done more than 3 minutes after the actual bite, it would remove perhaps 1/1000 of the venom and could cause damage or infection to the bitten area.  A Sawyer Extractor (a syringe with a suction cup) is more modern, but is also fairly ineffective in eliminating more than a small amount of the venom. These methods fail, mostly, due to the speed at which the venom is absorbed.

Interestingly, snake bites cause less infections than bites from, say, cats, dogs, or humans.  As such, antibiotics are used less often in these cases.

Dr. Bones

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20 Responses to :
Snake Bite Survival

  1. GRG says:

    Copperheads and also poison.

  2. Leonard M. Urban says:

    So far as I know, none of the Copperheads’ bites are usually fatal. You’ll be miserable, sick and in great pain, but you’ll survive the bite of a Copperhead if your healthy…

  3. If you see a snake near your living space, leave it alone unless it is a pit viper, then you may want to get rid of it. Snakes are predators and fill a niche. Every snake is hunting. If you have trash that draws mice or rats, you will have predators coming after the rodents. I much prefer to have bull snakes, black snakes and the best snake, a king snake, around my house and barn. They take care of the rodents, and the king snake will kill the venomous snakes (hence his name). Another type of king snake is a bright yellow and black. Having non-venomous snakes will startle you, but also help keep bad snakes away.
    If you kill every snake you see, you simply make it easier for the venomous snakes to move in as the dominant predator. Not good. Nature abhors a vacuum, and something will come in. Just keep the good snakes.
    You can tell a venomous snake because it has an elliptical pupil, i.e. cat’s eye pupil (other than one rattle snake in the Mojave dessert and the coral snake which have round pupils). And they are usually kind of fat, not long and sleek. Lots of snakes will coil up when you startle them, that doesn’t mean it is venomous. It’s just a protective position.

    1. Erin Z_on the go says:

      My grandparents had horses and, therefore a barn full of hay and so mice looking for warmth. Papa bought two pairs of king snakes for the barn. As far as I know they are the only snake known to kill a rattlesnake, but us grandkids knew to take precautions, always.

  4. There are two different kinds of Snake Root growing in the USA, and they are used for snake bites as their name indicates. However, my favorites for drawing out venom are to chew Tobacco, Plantain leaves and Green Brier leaves, and put the resulting mash on the wound. In a pinch, chew up some tobacco alone, and it will still work pretty good, but does better with one or more of the other two.

  5. Marsha says:

    I live in Texas in a small town, but very rural. I have found a snakes in my shower, under my plant pots and in the yard. They are very pretty, gray green, blue with v’s in a different blue. I worry about my Lab who will bark at any critter including snakes. I think they live under my home which is on blocks. I wasn’t thrilled to find the black snake in my shower but I have been behind a gray/green one when I was watering my garden and it went through the lattice work. It didn’t hurry even though I was squirting water on it. The Blue/blue one hurried away from my barking dog. I had to hold her by the collar because she was snapping at it. It was at night. We are going through our 3 drought year and wondered if there will less snakes or more.

    I am not scared of them but if my dog gets hold of one, I am sure she will be bite. Any suggestions?

    1. Dave A says:

      Marsha –

      Your vet will have a preventive snakebite vaccine for your dog. The vaccine does not eliminate the effects of a bite, but makes them MUCH less life-threatening. I think it is effective against all pit vipers (though maybe not coral snakes – ask your vet.) Also, I think one injection provides a year of protection, depending on the size of the dog – again check with your vet. I live in the southwest outskirts of Austin, but have not gotten these for my 2 dogs – but my vet told me he has treated several snakebites last year. (Drought has been bringing snakes and all wildlife closer to people areas.)

      1. Doris C says:

        Just wanted to say that the snakebite vacination is good for 6 mos. not a yr. but if bitten even with thec shot doggy needs to go to the vet asap.

  6. Ditchdog says:

    Many bites from pit vipers do not inject the venom because the snake uses the venom to incapacitate its intended meal. They don’t normally inject into something to large to eat. I use “many” and “normally” because a number of factors come into play such as, was the snake startled as might occur when you might step over a log and onto the snake? Young rattlers and the like are more dangerous to humans than the larger mature snakes because they lack the portion control found in mature snakes. When a young viper hits you it delivers a full load.

    In the US vipers have beautiful yellow and black eyes with slits much like that of the common toad. Non-venomous snakes have small black pupils (the coral snake also has black pupils). This doesn’t hold for exotics in other countries.

    In times of drought the number of snakes will seem to increase because they will seek moisture. Black snakes, rat snakes, etc. may seem to be aggressive but would much rather run than fight. Your dog shouldn’t have any issue with them. Vipers might be another matter.

    Don’t go around wacking them as they all serve a purpose.

  7. Erin Z_on the go says:

    If camping, FOR SHAME. Never leave camp without a good solid walking stick! The Boy Scout Office sells a great pine one for a pittance. But a solid branch will do. I poke at any area where I may step, pick up firewood, or bit to p/u then listen for the telltale rattle of our W.Diamondback Rattlesnake. I watch so many families hike in the grass of a Nat’l forest near me in So. Calif. in flipflops and shorts for a picnic area a mile off and one to two dozen times a summer, usually May or Oct hear the helos coming in to get a bitten hiker and send a prayer, esp. that it wasn’t a child. A new pic too! EZ

  8. Lloyd says:

    There used to be small electronic units that you could use to zap the bite area with – I understood that the jolt they delivered would help destabilize and disintegrate the venom. Anyone know if you can still get them? Or are there schematics available to make one?

    1. Sarah Steadman says:

      Tasers, cattle prods, spark plugs from a running engine…….hurts like hell but better than death.

      Works on most things that inject venom or can cause anaphlactic (sp?) Shock like bee stings, snake bites, venomous spiders and such…..

  9. Lloyd says:

    Almost forgot – that was a very good article – hope we never have to make use of it!!!

  10. Mike says:

    Here in California (northern) we do have a decent population of rattlesnakes, you really have to be unaware to be bitten, as from my experience they are quick to flee of they can, but it is easy to step on one if walking in grass without watching where you’re stepping.
    But in the same areas, and maybe even more common are another similar looking, non venomous snake who actually take advantage of looking like a rattle snake by working their non rattle having tail fast and hard against the ground and will even hiss simultaneously. It’s the gopher snake so if you run into a snake going through the motions without actually rattling, it’s probably a gopher snake so don’t kill it.
    But like i said, most rattlers are usually happy to just get the hell away from people and don’t necessarily require extermination unless they make your land their territory and you run into them too often. Then they may need to be taken care of.

  11. Eleanor says:

    I liv in a rural area near corn fields, so have snakes and rodents, mice, not rats. Although I hate to “kill” a mouse, I have found that putting antifreeze in a midsize jar lid, and plac in strategic places. Keep away from pets and children. please. But this has decreased the number of vermin I see or hear. As far as the snakes, as long as they stay outside, I might be able to tolerate them, but nearly stepping on one will bring out my instinct to kill it, and then try to do it in the middle of the yard so I can carry it to the cornfield and pitch it away.

  12. Eleanor says:

    It has taken me a few years to get over my GREAT PANIC FEAR of a snake. I could see a picture of a snake on TV, or in a magazine and have chills and panic. It was mind over matter in this case.

  13. chris g says:

    When we were stationed in TX, my Mom sent a snake bite zapper, we always had plugged in and ready, but never used. Now, living in Georgia, the rattlers are smaller – maybe faster- but much fewer, on the property. I’ve accidently mowed two, haven’t seen another, since. We keep a beautiful, very large King Snake in the machine shop. He has his own drawer (with side holes) in the work bench by the door. I feel somewhat guilty, but still place cat food out to attract rodents for him. I’ve “known” him the better part of 11 years. How long do these guys live?

    1. Steven says:

      Up to 34 years.

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