- Bite from a snake
General Information: Snakebites most commonly occur on the hands, arms, ankles, or legs when an individual attempts to play with or capture a snake.
Types of Snakebites
- Known poisonous snake
- Known non-poisonous snake
- Unknown (unidentified) snake
- Poisonous snakebites result in 12 to 15 deaths per year in the United States. (1 to 2% of the total poisonous bites).
- There are two main families of poisonous snakes in the U.S. and Canada: Pit Vipers and Coral Snakes.
- Pit Vipers: The different members of the pit viper group include rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths (water moccasins). The venom from pit vipers first causes localized pain and swelling and then later causes generalized symptoms of weakness, nausea, and sweating.
- Coral Snakes: The venom from a coral snake is toxic to the nervous system. A bite can cause severe weakness or paralysis with minimal pain or swelling at the bite mark. The patterning and coloration consists of bands of dark-red, yellow, and black. The red bands have yellow bands on each side. There are various rhymes that have been made up to remember this pattern. One example is "Red on Yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, venom lack."
- Poisonous snakes have fangs that leave fang marks (1-2 tiny puncture wounds) on the skin at the snakebite site.
- No symptoms. In about 20% of poisonous snakebites, no venom is injected (dry bites).
- Local symptoms. If the venom was injected (envenomation), the fang marks will begin to burn and hurt within 5 minutes and swell within 30 minutes. (Exception: the coral snake can cause severe weakness or paralysis with minimal pain or swelling at the bite mark.)
- Systemic (generalized) symptoms. General body symptoms (e.g., nausea, sweating, weakness) may take several hours to develop. The severity of symptoms depends on the quantity of venom injected, degree of venom toxicity, location of the bite, snake species and size, and the victim's age and size.
- Most non-poisonous bites occur during attempted capture or are from pet snakes.
- A non-poisonous snakebite may appear as a semi-circular pattern of small teeth marks. Often, the small teeth of the non-poisonous snake leave a scrape that doesn't even puncture the skin.
Unknown (Unidentified) Snakes
- Sometimes the snake disappears shortly after the bite. In other cases, the snake has been killed but is hard to identify. Most bites are from harmless snakes.
- Generally, you can assume that it is a non-poisonous snakebite if there is no local pain, no local swelling, and no fang marks (puncture wounds).
When to call your doctor
Call 911 Now (you may need an ambulance) If
- Passed out (fainted)
- Very weak (can't stand)
- Difficult to awaken or acting confused
- Difficulty breathing
- Note: see First Aid
Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If
- You feel weak or very sick
- Poisonous snakebite
- Snake with red, yellow, and black bands
- 1 or 2 puncture marks (fang marks) are present
- Blood blisters, purple spots, or bleeding in the bite area
- Bite from unknown type of snake and the bite area burns, hurts, or becomes swollen
- Muscle cramps occur
- Numbness or tingling of face
- Bite looks infected (e.g., spreading redness, pus) (Note: infection doesn't start until at least 24-48 hours after a bite).
- You feel sick in any way (e.g., weakness, nausea, vomiting, chills, fever)
- Note: see First Aid
Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours (between 9 am and 4 pm) If
- You think you need to be seen
- No tetanus booster in more than 10 years
Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If
- You have other questions or concerns
Self Care at Home If
- Non-poisonous snakebite with no complications and you don't think you need to be seen
HOME CARE ADVICE FOR NON-POISONOUS SNAKEBITE
- Cleansing: Wash the bite thoroughly with soap and water. Apply an antibiotic ointment (over-the-counter) once to the bite mark.
- Call Your Doctor If:
- You develop any other symptoms in the 6 hours after the snakebite.
- Bite begins to look infected (redness, swelling, warmth, tender to touch, or red streaks)
- You become worse
Author: David A. Thompson, M.D.
Last reviewed: 9/15/2011
Last revised: 12/5/2010 12:33:46 PM