Snake Bite

What do I need to know about a snake bite?

Most snakes are not venomous. Some snakes inject venom that can act as a poison in your body. Even venomous snakes often bite without injecting venom. The venom may cause severe skin and tissue damage after several hours or days. A snake bite is a serious condition and can be life-threatening, although deaths in the US are rare.

What are the signs and symptoms of a snake bite?

Signs and symptoms may be mild to severe, and can appear within minutes to hours after you were bitten. You may not feel anything at first.

  • Redness, pain, and swelling where you were bitten or up the bitten limb

  • Numbness, tingling, burning, or paralysis

  • Abdominal pain, upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, or little or no urination

  • Anxiety, weakness, drowsiness, or dizziness

  • Fever or chills, headache, twitching or seizures

  • A bruise, blister, pus, ulcer, or black tissue around the wound site

  • Nose bleed, or blood in your spit, vomit, or bowel movement

  • Chest tightness, trouble breathing, or pale or blue skin, lips, or fingertips

How is a snake bite diagnosed?

Your caregiver will ask where and when you were bitten. Tell him if you know what kind of snake bit you, or describe it to him. Your caregiver will closely look at your injury, and check the area around it. He may press your skin in the groin or armpit to feel your lymph nodes. Your caregiver may measure around your bitten limb more than once to check the amount of swelling. He may order blood or urine tests to look for signs that the snake venom is causing injury.

How is a snake bite treated?

Your bite wound will be cleaned with soap, water, and germ-killing solutions. This helps wash away germs that may be in the wound, and decreases the risk of infection. If the wound area becomes large, your caregiver may need to do surgical cleaning.

  • Antivenom: This is the main treatment for poisonous snake bites. Most, but not all, poisonous snake bites need this treatment. This is most effective if given within 4 hours of a snake bite. It neutralizes the venom in your body, preventing it from causing more damage. You may need more than one dose of antivenom. People who are allergic to papaya or other vaccines may be allergic to antivenom. Tell your caregiver if you are allergic to any of these or have other allergies or medical conditions.

  • Td vaccine: This vaccine is a booster shot used to help prevent diphtheria and tetanus. The Td booster may be given to adolescents and adults every 10 years or for certain wounds and injuries.

What should I do if a snake bites me?

Do not cut into the wound, or apply suction to try and remove the venom. Do not use tourniquets, or apply heat, cold, or electric shock to the bite area.

  • Stay calm, sit or lie down, and stay still: Avoid moving the part of your body where you were bitten. Too much movement may help spread the venom to other parts of your body. If the bite is on your arm or leg, immobilize the limb with a splint if possible.

  • Remove items: Remove tight-fitting clothing and jewelry items such as rings, watches, and bracelets near your bite.

  • Keep the bitten area below the level of your heart: The venom will spread more slowly if the wound stays below the level of your heart.

  • See a caregiver right away: Do not wait until you have symptoms before you see a caregiver.

Which snakes are poisonous?

The following are common poisonous snakes:

  • Pit vipers: Rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths (also called water moccasins) are pit viper snakes. These snakes have large, triangle-shaped heads.

  • Coral snakes: Coral snakes are colorful and have small heads. Coral snakes usually do not bite unless they feel they are being attacked. Their bites may be painless and easy to miss.

  • Other snakes: Rarely, snake bites are caused by adders, asps, cobras, kraits, mambas, sea snakes, and vipers. Bites caused by these types of snakes often occur when people have them for pets. These snakes are not native to the US, but they can be encountered in the wild in other countries.

How can I prevent a snake bite?

Snake bites are most common when the weather is warm. Snakes are more active in warm weather, and people spend more time outdoors. Snakes bite to defend themselves when they feel threatened. If you accidently step on a snake, you may be bitten on the foot or leg. This usually occurs when the snake is not moving and not seen, or is hidden by plants.

  • Dress to protect yourself: Wear shoes or boots and pants to protect your feet and legs.

  • Learn what poisonous snakes look like: Learn to recognize poisonous snakes, especially if you spend time outdoors. Learn which poisonous snakes can be found where you live or spend time outdoors, and what they look like.

  • Learn where snakes may be found: Snakes rest in cool, shaded areas during hot weather. Do not put your hands or fingers into holes or places you cannot see.

  • Leave snakes alone: Do not try to catch, frighten, or attack a snake. Back away and do not try to touch the snake. Do not pick up a snake that appears to be dead. Even dead snakes can deliver venom through their fangs. Rattlesnakes shake the ends of their tails to make a rattle sound that warns that it feels threatened. If you hear a rattlesnake, move away quickly.

  • Light your path: Use a flashlight or lamp when you walk outside at night. Do not walk in areas where you cannot see the ground.

What are the risks of a snake bite?

  • Venom from a snake bite may damage different parts of your body. How fast these problems occur and how bad they are depends on the amount of venom you receive. Different snakes give different kinds and amounts of venom. Children usually develop more serious problems because of their smaller bodies. Treatment for a snake bite may bring side effects. Antivenom may cause allergic reactions, such as a rash, itchiness, fever, and muscle pains. You may also have an upset stomach, diarrhea, headache, or trouble breathing. You may develop soreness, redness, or swelling in the muscle where a tetanus shot was given. Even with treatment, your wound may become worse, or you may get very sick from having the poison in your body.

  • Untreated snake bites may lead to more serious problems, such as swelling, bleeding, and infections. Severe swelling may press on the blood vessels and nerves in the area. The venom may spread to other parts of your body. You may have bleeding through your nose or other parts of your body. You may have trouble breathing and your blood pressure may become very low. The venom may damage nerves, and you could become paralyzed, have difficulty breathing or swallowing. You may have seizures, go into a coma, or die. People who have high blood pressure or bleeding problems are at a higher risk of problems.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • Your wound gets larger or becomes more red and has pus.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate help?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You feel dizzy, have a fever, start throwing up, or sweat more than usual.

  • You develop swelling, redness, or more pain around your bite.

  • You have chest pain or trouble breathing, or your skin is red, swollen, or more painful.

  • You have problems moving the injured part.

  • You have numbness or tingling in the area of the bite.

  • You have tightness in your throat, wheezing, a swollen tongue, or a rash over your body.

  • Your urine is dark or you urinate less than is usual for you.

  • Your wound does not stop bleeding, or have bleeding through your nose or other parts of your body.

Where can I find more information?

  • 24-Hour Nationwide Poison Control Hotline
    National Capital Poison Center
    3201 New Mexico Avenue, Suite 310
    Washington , DC 20016
    Phone: 1- 800 - 222-1222
    Web Address: http://www.poison.org
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    1600 Clifton Road
    Atlanta , GA 30333
    Phone: 1- 404 - 6393311
    Phone: 1- 800 - 3113435
    Web Address: http://www.cdc.gov

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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