Snake Bites

A snakebite is a wound caused by a legless reptile. Snakes are both venomous and nonvenomous. Venom is toxic to humans and can be life-threatening.


What is a snakebite?

A snakebite is a wound caused by a snake’s fangs piercing your skin. A snake is a slithering reptile that’s long and doesn’t have limbs. A snake may bite to capture prey or to defend itself. A snakebite can cause an injury and, in some cases, it can be life-threatening.

If you’re not expecting to see a snake in the wild, it can scare you when it reveals itself. You might feel your heart rate increase as you jump or shriek in response to seeing something move quickly past your feet on a walking trail or slithering up a tree beside you. The potential dangers of getting a snakebite can make your fear more intense. For this reason, a snakebite can cause emotional trauma in addition to a physical wound.

Are snakes venomous?

Snakes are both venomous and nonvenomous. Venom is a poisonous substance that a snake makes to help it capture prey, protect itself and digest food. If a snake is venomous, it injects venom through its teeth (fangs) into whatever it bites.

Many species of snakes carry certain types of venom that affect your body in different ways, including:

  • Cytotoxins: Cause swelling and tissue damage wherever you’ve been bitten.
  • Haemorrhagins: Disrupt your blood vessels.
  • Anti-clotting agents: Prevent your blood from clotting.
  • Neurotoxins: Cause paralysis or other damage to your nervous system.
  • Myotoxins: Break down your muscles.

What is the difference between poison and venom?

Poison is a toxic substance that enters your body through inhalation, absorption or swallowing. Venom is a poisonous toxin that enters your body through injection.

A common way to understand the difference between poison and venom is:

  • If you bite it and experience symptoms, it’s poisonous.
  • If something bites you and you experience symptoms, it’s venomous.

For example, a bite from a copperhead snake is venomous. A dart frog is poisonous if you eat it, put it in your mouth or some of the poison that the frog makes on its skin enters your body.


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Are snakebites dangerous?

Yes, snakebites are dangerous. Some types of snakebites are more serious than others:

  • Dry bites: These occur when a snake doesn’t release any venom with its bite. As you’d expect, these are mostly seen with nonvenomous snakes.
  • Venomous bites: These are dangerous and often life-threatening. They occur when a snake injects venom into your body during a bite.

Venomous snakes voluntarily inject venom when they bite. They can regulate the amount of venom in each bite. An estimated 50% to 70% of venomous snake bites result in envenoming (injecting venom into someone or something) or poisoning.

Even with a less serious type of bite, every snake bite should be treated as a medical emergency — unless you’re sure that the bite came from a nonvenomous snake. Any delay in treatment following a venomous snake bite could result in serious injury or, in the worst-case scenario, death.

What types of snakes are venomous?

There are two major groups of venomous snakes:

  • Elapids (cobra family): There are about 300 venomous species of Elapidae, including kraits, mambas, coral snakes and sea snakes. They have short fangs in the front of the upper jaw and strike downward, followed by chewing. Their venom is mainly neurotoxic (it harms your central nervous system), but it can also harm body tissue or blood cells. If a cobra bites you, you can die from paralysis of your heart and lungs very quickly after.
  • Vipers: There are more than 200 species of Viperidae, which includes pit vipers (like rattlesnakes, copperheads or cottonmouths). They have long, hollow, venomous fangs attached to movable bones in their upper jaws. They fold their fangs back into their mouths when they’re not in use.

What are common species of snakes and are they venomous?

There are thousands of species of snakes around the world. Some snakes that you may encounter in your environment may make venom and could cause harm if they bite you.

Snake species
Adder/Common viper
Is it venomous to humans?
Ball python
Is it venomous to humans?
Black racer snake
Is it venomous to humans?
Bull snake
Is it venomous to humans?
Copperhead snake
Is it venomous to humans?
Coral snake
Is it venomous to humans?
Cottonmouth/Water moccasin
Is it venomous to humans?
Garter snake
Is it venomous to humans?
Rat snake
Is it venomous to humans?
Is it venomous to humans?
Ringneck snake
Is it venomous to humans?

It’s best to treat all snakebites as a medical emergency. It can be difficult to identify a snake as it may slither away before you get a good look at its markings. Any delay in treatment following the bite of a venomous snake could result in death or serious injury.

How common are snakebites?

In the United States, there are around 7,000 to 8,000 venomous snakebites annually, but only five to 10 are fatal. Around the world, the World Health Organization reported that an estimated 4.5 million to 5.4 million people get snakebites each year. From that estimate, 1.8 million to 2.7 million develop an illness after a snakebite and 81,000 to 138,000 die each year from snakebites.

Symptoms and Causes

Symptoms of a nonvenomous snakebite and a venomous snakebite
Symptoms of a snakebite vary based on the type of snake that bit you.

What are the symptoms of a snakebite?

Symptoms of a snakebite vary based on what type of snake bit you. A nonvenomous snake can cause:

  • Mild swelling.
  • Color changes to your skin (redness or a darker color than your natural skin tone).
  • Bleeding at the site of the bite.

Venomous snakebite symptoms

Symptoms of a venomous snakebite include:

  • Puncture wounds from the bite mark on your skin.
  • Pain (sharp, throbbing, burning) at the site of the bite or throughout your limb or area of your body that has a bite. Not all venomous snakebites cause pain.
  • Color changes to your skin.
  • Sweating and/or drooling.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Headache, dizziness and blurred vision.
  • A metallic taste in your mouth.

Severe symptoms of a venomous snakebite include:

A venomous snakebite is a medical emergency. Call 911 or your local emergency services number or visit the emergency room immediately if you experience any symptoms after a snakebite.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction to a snakebite

If you have an allergic reaction to a snakebite, you could go into anaphylactic shock. Many of the symptoms of a severe allergic reaction are the same or very similar to the symptoms of a venomous snakebite. In addition to the symptoms of a venomous snakebite, symptoms specific to an allergic reaction include:

  • Throat tightness, a swollen tongue and difficulty speaking.
  • Pale skin tone (flushing).
  • Constant cough and/or wheezing.

Can a snake bite you more than once?

Yes, if a snake is trying to defend itself, it may bite you more than once. If a venomous snake bit you more than once, you may get multiple doses of snake venom injected into your body with each bite. This can increase the severity of your symptoms and lessen the amount of time to get treatment to stop severe symptoms from affecting you.


What causes a snakebite?

The puncture of snake fangs (teeth) into your skin and the injection of snake venom causes a snakebite. Snake venom can seriously harm your body and cause death in some cases. The severity of the bite varies based on the type of snake that bit you.

What are the risk factors for snakebites?

You may be more at risk of getting a snakebite if you:

  • Work or play outdoors.
  • Live in a warm, desert or tropical climate.
  • Handle snakes.
  • Live in a rural area.

What are the complications of a snakebite?

Complications from a snakebite could include:

  • Wound swells, causes pain, changes color and leaks pus or fluid (infection).
  • Skin appears black and dies around the wound (necrosis).
  • Your immune system reacts negatively to an infection (sepsis).
  • An infection causes very low blood pressure and organ failure (septic shock).
  • Hives, difficulty breathing and/or severe swelling (allergic reaction).
  • Death.

Complications are more common in regions of the world where there’s limited access to healthcare and treatment.

Pain and swelling are common long-lasting effects in the area of the body where the bite occurred.


Diagnosis and Tests

How is a snakebite diagnosed?

A healthcare provider will diagnose a snakebite after reviewing your symptoms. Puncture wounds in your skin from snake fangs are usually the first indication of a snakebite to a healthcare provider. Blood tests can also help your healthcare provider determine if there’s venom in your body, which can help them identify treatment.

If you saw the snake bite you and you were able to identify specific colors or markings, let your healthcare provider know.

Management and Treatment

How is a nonvenomous snakebite treated?

Treatment for a nonvenomous snakebite is proper wound care. This includes:

  • Cleaning the bite with soap and water.
  • Covering it with a bandage.
  • Monitoring the area and letting your healthcare provider know if you have signs of infection like swelling, pus or pain.

How is a venomous snakebite treated?

Treatment for a venomous snake bite is antivenom (antivenin). Antivenom is a type of antibody therapy that reduces the effects of venom in your body. You may receive the antivenom as an injection or through an IV (through a needle in your arm) so that it can take action as quickly as possible.

Knowing the size, color and shape of the snake can help your doctor determine which antivenom is best for your situation. There are antivenoms that treat bites from a specific type of snake (monospecific antivenoms) and those that treat bites from a number of snakes found in a particular geographic region (polyspecific antivenoms).

If the bite caused a larger-than-normal loss of blood, a blood transfusion may be necessary. If your blood pressure dips below a certain level, you may need IV fluids (through a needle in the arm).

Since antivenom has potential side effects, you’ll also need to be monitored in a hospital.

Snake bite first aid

You should treat every snake bite as a medical emergency since some snakes are venomous and their bite can be life-threatening. Call 911 or emergency services immediately. Driving yourself to the emergency room may be dangerous because your symptoms can impact your ability to drive safely.

After calling for help, take the following steps:

  • Stay calm and inform people who are nearby that there’s a snake and it bit you.
  • Sit or lie down in a safe area away from the snake.
  • Remove any jewelry or accessories you’re wearing.
  • Use soap and water to gently wash the bite area.
  • Cover the bite wound with a clean, dry wound dressing or bandage.
  • Make a note of any swelling or changes to your skin surrounding the bite along with the time when changes occurred.

When emergency services arrive, they’ll administer antivenom quickly to reduce the effects of snake venom.

What should you avoid doing while treating a snakebite?

Sometimes, a snakebite can cause people to panic. Even so, there are certain things you should avoid doing immediately following a snakebite, including:

  • Don’t wait for symptoms to appear before calling for help.
  • Don’t go after the snake, try to pick it up or trap it. This puts you more at risk of getting bitten again. Even if the snake is dead, it can still release venom.
  • Don’t apply a tourniquet, which is a device to stop blood flow to a body part.
  • Don’t cut into your wound.
  • Don’t try to suck out the venom.
  • Don’t apply ice or use water to submerge your wound.
  • Don’t drink alcohol.
  • Don’t drink beverages with caffeine.
  • Don’t take any pain-relieving medication, such as ibuprofen or aspirin.

Are there side effects of the treatment?

A side effect of antivenom is serum sickness disease. This can happen four to 10 days after receiving antivenom. If you experience any of the following symptoms, contact your healthcare provider:

How soon after treatment will I feel better?

The amount of time it takes to completely recover depends on the kind of snakebite. On average, it could take a few weeks to a few months before you feel better. Some people may need longer to heal than others. 

In most cases, you’ll stay in the hospital for at least 24 hours, so that doctors can monitor your blood pressure and overall health, then you can return home to finish your healing.


Can a snakebite be prevented?

It can be difficult to avoid snakebites if you live, work or vacation in an area where snakes are common. You can take steps to prevent snakebites by:

  • Being careful where you put your hands and feet. Don’t reach into unknown spaces and holes, or underneath objects without first making sure a snake isn’t hiding there.
  • Being aware of your surroundings. Don’t lie down or sit down in areas where there might be snakes.
  • Wearing high-top boots and long pants when walking through or working in areas with dense vegetation.
  • Not attempting to capture, handle or keep snakes.
  • If you come across a snake, slowly back away from it and avoid touching it.

Outlook / Prognosis

What’s the outlook for a snakebite?

Your outlook after a snakebite varies based on what type of snake bit you and the amount of venom it injected into your body. If treated with antivenom quickly, you’ll have a more positive outlook. Untreated or delayed treatment of venomous snakebites is life-threatening and can lead to death.

Living With

When should I go to the ER?

Contact 911 or your local emergency services number if you have a snakebite. Treat every snakebite as a medical emergency unless you know for certain that the snake is nonvenomous. Don’t attempt to drive yourself to the emergency room after a snakebite. Either wait for help to arrive or have someone else drive you to the emergency room.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

You may want to consider asking your provider:

  • Was the snake that bit me venomous?
  • Do I need to stay in the hospital after a snakebite?
  • Can I take pain relievers after a snakebite?
  • What side effects should I look out for?
  • When should I start feeling better?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

It can be very difficult to stay calm after encountering a snake, especially a snake that bit you. The elusive reptiles cause fear due to their potentially dangerous nature. With about 3,000 species of snakes, only 15% of them around the world are venomous. Since snakes are quick during a bite, you may not get a good look at a snake to identify whether it’s venomous or nonvenomous. While your heart’s racing, take a deep breath and call emergency services or 911 after a snakebite. This is a safety precaution. Your fear may hide the pain from the bite, which may make the bite seem less dangerous than it really is. Getting treatment quickly prevents life-threatening complications.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 04/02/2024.

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