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How to Avoid and Treat Snake Bites

National Geographic

Every outdoorsman has that small fear in his head of getting bit by a venomous snake while out in the bush. Learn how to treat a bite if you or someone else gets bit.

There are roughly 126 species of snake in North America. Out of those, only 20 are harmful to humans. They include 16 species of rattlesnake, two species of coral snake, one species of cottonmouth, and one species of copperhead.

For every thousand bites only one is usually lethal. Copperheads are responsible for most venomous bites and diamondback rattlesnake bites are the cause of most deaths. Here is how to avoid and treat snake bites while enjoying the outdoors.

Wildlife North America

Avoiding Snake Bites

The first thing to do when you are in an area that has high populations of venomous snakes is to avoid being bitten. Here are a few ways to hopefully avoid snake bites.

1. Learn to identify venomous snakes.

Potentially deadly snakes have elliptical pupils and triangular heads. They have small depressions near their nostrils called “pits” for detecting body heat. Remember this saying for coral snakes:

Red on black, venom lack; red on yellow, deadly fellow.”

2. Avoid tall grass and brush.

Try to stick to clear paths away from thick grass and brush where snakes like to hide. Use a stick to poke around in front of you to alert them in advance if possible.

3. Wear thick pants and high boots.

If walking in snake country wearing tall, thick boots will help shield you should you surprise a resting snake. Same goes for a good thick pair of pants, you may get hot but it will be worth not getting bitten.

4. If you see one, freeze.

If you happen to hear the infamous rattling noise from a rattlesnake’s tail or stumble upon a sun bathing copperhead, FREEZE! They can’t see very well and mostly rely on their pits to track prey. Stand there calmly for a moment before slowly backing away.

5. Use self awareness at all times.

Most importantly, use self awareness in the bush at all times. Don’t just pay attention to the ground; look at the trees, and everything else around you as well. Cottonmouths love to hang on limbs while resting near water, and rattlesnakes like hiding inside holes in cool rocks. Just use common sense.

snake bite
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How to Treat Bites

If you or someone else happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time follow these steps.

1. Get a visual of the snake’s appearance.

It is not important to get exact details, just a quick mental image. Try to remember color, patterns, and sizes to tell paramedics later.

2. Get away from the snake.

Put as much distance between you and the snake as possible to avoid a second bite. Don’t run or panic, as this will get your blood pumping faster and spread the venom quicker.

3. Call for help.

If you are within cell phone range call for help as soon as possible. Let them know your location and that you have been bitten. If this is not possible, remember most cases are not lethal and calmly make your way to help.

4. Remove any constrictive items.

Most bites will cause fast swelling. Remove jewelry, rip pants or shirts open, and anything that could cause complications.

5. Sterilize the wound if possible.

If you have any medical supplies handy such as sterilizing wipes and bandages, use them. Wipe the area down and firmly place a bandage over it until help arrives.

6. Lay as still as you can.

If waiting for help to arrive stay down and be as still as possible. Take steady breaths and try to prevent your heart rate from rising any further.

Snake bite myths

  • Do not try to suck the venom out. This does not work and could put venom in your mouth, directly into your bloodstream.
  • Do not cut the wound open. This will not leak the venom out and could complicate things worse.
  • Do not apply a tourniquet. Doing this will not help slow the venom down much and will cut off circulation. Unless you want to lose a leg for no reason, leave it be.

The wild can be a dangerous place. Prepare and educate yourself before going into snake country.


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How to Avoid and Treat Snake Bites