Snake bites should always be taken seriously. Though some are dry bites, which aren't as dangerous and will likely cause some swelling, others are venomous bites, which, if not treated carefully and quickly, can result in death. Always seek immediate medical attention if you've been bitten by a snake, as it could be a matter of life and death.
Snakes bite either to capture prey or for self-defense. But since there are so many different types of snakes — including both venomous and non-venomous — not every snake bite is created equal.
Different species carry different types of venom. The major categories include:
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The answer might seem obvious, but there are two different types of snake bites. And one is more serious than the other:
Poisonous snakes voluntarily emit venom when they bite. They can control the amount of venom they discharge, and 50 to 70% of venomous snake bites result in envenoming or poisoning. Even with a less serious type of bite, every snake bite should be treated as a medical emergency — unless you’re absolutely sure that the bite came from a non-venomous snake. Any delay in treatment following a venomous snake bite could result in serious injury or, in the worst-case scenario, death.
Snake bites aren’t terribly common in the U.S. — and they aren’t usually fatal. But according to the World Health Organization, between 4.5 and 5.4 million snake bites occur each year and 1.8 to 2.7 million of those cause illnesses. It’s estimated that at least 81,000 to 138,000 people die each year from snake bites.
Even so it is best to treat all snake bites as a medical emergency unless one is certain the bite came from a non-venomous snake. Any delay in treatment following the bite of a venomous snake could result in death or serious injury.
Up to 95% of snake bites occur in either tropical or developing countries. Those who live in South Asia, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are particularly affected by venomous snake bites, as they often don’t have access to adequate healthcare services or antivenoms. Snake bites are also especially common in poor communities, often in rural areas. People with specific jobs are also more at risk, including:
In North America, most snakes are not venomous. But those that are venomous include the rattlesnake, water moccasin, coral snake and copperhead snake.
If you’re bitten by a snake, your symptoms will differ depending on which type of bite it is. If you suffer a dry snake bite, you’ll likely just have swelling and redness around the area of the bite. But if you’re bitten by a venomous snake, you’ll have more widespread symptoms, which commonly include:
If you have an allergic reaction to a snake bite, you could suffer from anaphylactic shock. Many of the symptoms are the same or very similar to the ones listed above, but more severe. But there are a few additional symptoms, including:
There are two major groups of venomous snakes:
First and foremost, seek immediate medical attention. This means call 911 or emergency services as soon as you can, because even if the bite isn’t that painful initially, you still need to treat it as if it’s potentially life-threatening. Properly identifying the snake can help with the treatment, though it’s very difficult to do so. Also be sure to take the following steps immediately:
While these are all useful precautionary measures, the ultimate treatment for a snake bite is antivenom. Try to get the victim of the bite antivenom as quick as possible. Knowing the size, color and shape of the snake can help your doctor determine which antivenom is best for that particular situation.
Fun fact: Antivenoms are created by immunizing horses or sheep with the venom of a particular snake. Their blood serum (the watery part of the blood) is then processed, as it will contain antibodies capable of neutralizing the effects of venom. There are antivenoms that treat bites from a specific type of snake (monospecific antivenoms) and also those that treat bites from a number of snakes found in a particular geographic region (polyspecific antivenoms).
The antivenom will be given either in an injection or through an IV (through a needle in the arm), so that it can take action as quickly as possible. While either of these methods may produce side effects, they’ve proven to be the most effective. One of those side effects is serum sickness disease, which can appear four to 10 days after receiving the antivenom. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should contact your healthcare provider or doctor to ask about serum sickness disease:
A snake bite can cause people to panic and act irrationally. Even so, there are certain things you should avoid doing immediately following a snake bite, including:
In most cases, you’ll need to stay in the hospital for at least 24 hours, so that doctors can monitor your blood pressure and overall health. If your blood pressure dips below a certain level, you may need IV fluids (through a needle in the arm). If the bite caused a larger-than-normal loss of blood, a blood transfusion may be necessary.
Since antivenom has potential side effects, you’ll also need to be monitored. Because of this fact, only trained medical professionals should give antivenom to patients. The amount of time it takes to completely recover depends on the kind of snake bite. In most cases, children can recover from a bite from an adder in one to two weeks. Most adults take more than three weeks, but 25% of patients need anywhere from one to nine months. Pain and swelling are common long-lasting effects in the area of the body where the bite occurred.
Depending on where you live (or choose to vacation), you may or may not have a hard time avoiding snakes. But if you're going to be in snake territory, there are some useful tips to avoid getting bitten:
If you don’t act quickly, snake bites can be incredibly dangerous, sometimes resulting in death. Though they aren’t exceedingly common in the U.S., there are still certain preventative measures you should take so that you can avoid having to deal with the complications from a venomous snake bite.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/02/2020.
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