How are snake bites treated?

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:

  • Remove any jewelry or watches, as these could cut into the skin if swelling occurs.
  • Keep the area of the bite below the heart in order to slow the spread of venom through the bloodstream.
  • Remain still and calm. If you can, roll over to your side and rest in the recovery position. Moving around a lot will cause the venom to spread faster through the body.
  • Cover the bite with a clean, dry bandage. Try to use a pressure immobilization bandage if you can. This type of bandage should be tightly wrapped around the bite. Then, wrap another bandage around the entire limb, so that it’s immobilized.

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:

  • Rashes.
  • Itching.
  • Joint pain.
  • Fever.
  • Kidney failure.
  • Swollen lymph nodes.

What shouldn't you do when treating a snake bite?

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:

  • Don’t pick up the snake or try to wrap it up or kill it, as this will increase your chance of getting bitten again. Even dead snakes can bite.
  • Don’t apply a tourniquet.
  • Don’t cut into the wound at all.
  • Don’t try to suck out the venom.
  • Don’t apply ice or use water to submerge the wound.
  • Don’t drink alcohol.
  • Don’t drink beverages with caffeine.
  • Don’t take any pain-relieving medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil®, Acetaminophen®).

What happens after you're treated for a snake bite?

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.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/02/2020.

References

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How to Prevent or Respond to a Snake Bite. Accessed 5/7/2020.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Venomous Snakes. Accessed 5/7/2020.
  • World Health Organization. Neglected tropical diseases: Snakebite. Accessed 5/7/2020.
  • World Health Organization. Snakebite. Accessed 5/7/2020.
  • UK National Health Service. Snake bites. Accessed 5/7/2020.
  • State of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Snakebites. Accessed 5/7/2020.
  • HealthDirect. Snake bites. Accessed 5/7/2020.
  • Bolon I, Durso AM, Botero Mesa S, Ray N, Alcoba G, Chappuis F, et al. Identifying the snake: First scoping review on practices of communities and healthcare providers confronted with snakebite across the world. PLos One. 2020; 15(3).
  • Chippaux, JP. Letter to the Editor: Snakebite envenomation turns again into a neglected tropical disease. Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins including Tropical Diseases.
  • Hifumi T, Sakai A, Kondo Y, Yamamoto A, Morine N, Ato M, et al. Venomous snake bites: clinical diagnosis and treatment. Journal of Intensive Care. 2015; 3(16).

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