While most North American snakes are not poisonous, nearly 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year. Despite this, there are usually less than eight deaths per year. This statistic should not, however, lead backpackers and hikers to believe snakes aren’t something to worry about. Snakes do not want to waste their poison on humans, but rather rodents and other small animals to feed on. But if threatened, a snake may attack and can leave a life-threatening wound behind. A bite from a so-called harmless snake can cause infection or allergic reaction, but if venomous, a snake’s bite can be deadly.
Preventing Snake Bites
While in the outdoors, do not pester, bother, or provoke snakes or other animals as you are in their territory. While it may seem like obvious advice, do not play with or attempt to pick up a snake unless you are a trained professional. If a snake is to bite a human, it is merely acting in defensive and will likely only leave enough venom behind to cause illness.
Avoid hiking in areas where snakes are known to be. Stay out of tall grass and stay on the hiking trail as much as possible. If you must invade snake territory, wear long pants, ankle-high boots, or even snake-proof gaiters. Be careful when stepping in areas where snakes could be hiding such as under or around rocks and logs. If you are entering an area where you can not see your feet, kick ahead of you to give snakes enough warning and time to slither away. Simply put, always keep your hands and feet out of areas where you are unable to see them.
Snake Bite Symptoms
- Bloody wound discharge
- Fang marks or swelling at wound
- Extreme localized pain
- Burning sensation
- Excessive sweating
- Rapid heart rate
- Weakness of body
- Loss of muscle coordination
- Blurred vision
- Nausea and vomiting
- Numbness or tingling
Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately if someone has been bitten by a snake. If treated correctly, most bite victims will not have serious injuries. However, medical support needs to know the correct antivenom to use as this is the only treatment. Attempt to identify the snake or remember its appearance in order to let the hospital or poison control know what type of antivenom is needed.
You may also call the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. The center can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in any kind of poisoning. You may call them with any questions regarding prevention or treatment. This national number is connected to all the local poison control centers. It does NOT need to be an emergency to call the National Poison Control Center – you may call them for any reason 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Snake Bite First Aid Instructions
After contacting medical help and while waiting for medical attention or prior to hiking the victim out, follow these instructions:
- Keep the snake bite victim calm, keeping them still and quiet. Restrict movement and keep the affected area at or below heart level to reduce the flow of venom.
- Remove any constricting items and tight clothing as the affected area may swell.
- Allow the bite to bleed freely for 15 – 30 seconds before cleansing. Clean the wound, but don’t flush with water. Cover it with a clean, dry dressing.
- Create a loose splint to help restrict movement of the affected area.
- Monitor the person’s vital signs – temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Also be aware of paleness.
- Watch for any signs of shock (sweating, clammy skin, or shallow breathing) since the fear of having been bitten is often more dangerous than the bite itself.
- Attempt to identify the snake and its appearance or, only if it can be done safely, bring in the dead snake. Do not waste time hunting for the snake, and do not risk another bite if it is not easy to kill the snake. Even after it has been killed, be very careful transporting the snake as it can still bite for several hours after dying. Amazingly enough, snakes have been reported to bite humans even after being decapitated.
Far From Medical Treatment
The only effective treatment for a snake bite is antivenom from a medical facility. No matter how far from civilization and cell or radio service you might be, you must still transport the bite victim to the nearest medical help. If this is more than 1 hour away, follow the previously listed first aid instructions along with some addition recommendations.
First, tightly wrap a bandage 2 – 4 inches above the wound to slow the venom’s spread. Be careful not to cut off all blood flow, however, as this could damage the affected limb. One finger should be able to slide underneath the bandage. Never apply tourniquets or constricting bands. In addition, do not administer any pain medications.
While removing venom through suction devices was once the standard procedure, research suggests that it can waste valuable time and may not be efficient. Some studies have shown that these devices do not remove a substantial amount of toxin and can damage sensitive tissue. Despite this, if you plan to backpack in areas that are several hours or days from medical facilities, having such snake bite kits is recommended. If medical help will not be available for more than 1 hour, the use of a suction device or kit is recommended. If within 1 hour of medical treatment, however, focus on following the first aid instructions above and safely transporting the victim as quickly as possible.
The Don’ts of Snake Bites
- Don’t apply a suction device or use a snake bite kit if the victim is 1 hour from medical help. Instead, contact medical help and focus on following the first aid instructions listed above.
- Don’t use your mouth to extract venom.
- Don’t allow the victim to engage in strenuous physical activity. If necessary, carry the person to safety. Otherwise, have them hike out slowly without their pack so they are not over-exerted.
- Don’t apply a tourniquet. Restricting superficial blood flow does keep the venom from spreading, which you want to avoid. Concentrated venom will rapidly destroy cells. Allowing it to spread will dilute the toxin and reduce tissue damage.
- Don’t apply a cold pack. Cold reduces healthy circulation to the infected area and can result in the loss of limbs. Some experts also believe snake venom increases vulnerability to frostbite.
- Don’t let the snake bite victim eat or drink anything, including medication and alcohol, unless okayed by medical staff.
- Don’t cut across the bite marks. Because snake fangs are curved, the pocket of venom will not be where expected and will probably have already spread. In addition, many snake bites are considered to be dry, or where there was no toxin released into the victim. Cutting into a dry bite may increase the risk of infection in the area by having an open wound.
- Don’t try to capture the snake. Unless the snake is dead, do not waste time attempting to capture the snake. Instead, remember the color, markings, and shape in order to report to facilitate faster treatment.
Poisonous Snakes in North America
All snakes will attack if they feel threatened or surprised, but only a handful are actually venomous. In any case, treat every bite seriously while you are backpacking or hiking. The list of poisonous snakes in North America include:
- Pit vipers – rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouth (water moccasin) snakes
- Coral snakes
Pit vipers have slit-like eyes, triangular heads, and have a depression halfway between the eye and nostril on either side of their head. Specifically, you can identify rattlesnakes by their shaking rattle at the end of their tail. The mouths of water moccasins have a white, cottony lining.
Coral snakes have red, yellow, and black rings along the length of their body.