How to Stay Alive if a Snake Bites You

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The allure of the wilderness brings people venturing outdoors to hike, backpack, camp, hunt, or just enjoy the solitude and beauty of a remote location. Yet in its midst lies an ever-present reality: the potential encounter with venomous snakes. While these creatures are an essential part of our ecosystem, a snake bite can quickly escalate into a life-threatening situation, especially when miles away from civilization.

Snake bites are undeniably alarming, but with the right knowledge and composure, you can increase your chances of survival. Remember that even in the remotest of locations, you are your best advocate for survival. Let’s learn about the critical first aid measures that can make a significant difference in the outcome.

image: rattlesnake bites you

How common are snake bites?

According to the CDC, 7,000 to 8,000 people in the United States are bitten by venomous snakes every year. Thankfully, only about five die. However, if people didn’t try to reach medical attention as promptly as possible, the number could be higher. Despite the low death rate, being bitten by a snake can result in serious long-term injuries for 10-44 percent.

Contrast that with sub-Saharan Africa where the number of people who die from a snake bite is more than 20,000. Availability of adequate health care and a lack quality antivenoms are part of the problem. This one reason to know how to handle an emergency if it happens abroad.

Regardless of your location when it happens, it’s important to take preventive measures and to know first aid for snake bites.

How to Identify Venomous Snakes

This downloadable publication about snakes from North Carolina State Extension will help you learn about venomous and harmless varieties.

Snakes will bite whatever body part is easiest to strike.

Snake Bite Preventative Measures

Snakes will bite whatever body part is easiest to strike. That’s usually a foot, ankle, hand, or arm. To protect yourself, wear hiking boots and a pair of thick socks that extend above the ankle. This protects those vulnerable spots as will a pair of loose, long pants.

Keep in mind that snakes are more active in warmer months. They also like to cower under rocks and in dark holes. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but don’t stick your hands in those types of places without looking first. This is something that kids, in particular, like to do, so warn them ahead of time of the dangers.

And, it’s not just hands that are a problem. Poking under rocks and in dark cubby holes with a stick can be equally dangerous if a sleeping snake is awakened. They can move surprisingly fast and if they aren’t in a good mood, who could blame them?

Here are some other tips for preventing snake bites:

  • Use common sense and leave snakes alone.
  • Watch for signs that warn of rattlesnakes and be alert.
  • Use walking sticks to clear areas ahead of you.
  • Never chase the snake from the trail.
  • Check rocks or stumps before sitting.
  • Snakes are cold-blooded and like to bask in sunny areas.
  • Sightings increase in spring and fall, with most snake bites happening April-October.
  • Snakes are most active at dawn and dusk, and when it’s warm.

What to Do If a Snake Bites You

In spite of these precautions, let’s assume that you are, indeed, one of the unluckiest people on the planet. You’re far from a medical facility and you’ve been bitten by a poisonous snake.

If others are with you and have a cell phone with the Red Cross first aid app, or a similar app, it wouldn’t hurt to look up “Snake Bites”, but otherwise, what do you do?

  1. First, don’t panic. As the venom enters your blood stream, you can slow down its spread by staying calm with a survival breathing technique and moving as little as possible.
  2. Walk backwards away from the snake and sit down a safe spot. If you become dizzy or faint, you don’t want to collapse and cause another injury.
  3. Expect swelling in the bite area, so remove rings, watches, and any tight clothing that could cut off circulation.
  4. Do not use anything that restricts blood flow. Think a tourniquet, ice, etc. This prevents the venom from being concentrated at the bite site. Also medical consensus is do not use snake bite kits.
  5. I’m not going to lie to you. The pain is going to be intense, but it’s important to not take any pain medication without a doctor’s advice. It can further impact the body’s clotting ability and increase the risk of internal bleeding.
  6. Use a pen to draw a circle around the wound and write on the skin the time the bite occurred. This will provide a gauge for tracking the reaction to the venom as well as any possible infection. Every 15-30 minutes repeat this. Mark the outer edge of swelling and the time. Also right down symptoms as they develop.
  7. Clean the bite wounds with water and soap and then apply a bandage to keep bacteria out. A glob of pine tree sap is a good alternative to a bandage, if that’s all you have on hand.
  8. Use an Epi Pen if you have anaphylaxis symptoms.
  9. If you are able, move slowly and steadily toward the closest medical facility, hopefully with the assistance of other people. Your best outcome will result from the most immediate medical attention.
  10. If you’ve brought along a cell phone, call Poison Control as soon as you have a clear signal, 1-800-222-1222.

I’m not going to lie to you. The pain is going to be intense

Things NOT to Do

  • At no point should you try to suck out the venom with your mouth, unless you really want to experience the effects of a snakebite without the actual bite. More than one person has died from ingesting snake venom in this manner.
  • You also shouldn’t waste time looking around for the snake in an attempt to kill it and take it to the medical facility. Just do your best to remember as many details as possible of its pattern of color and size. If you do see the snake nearby, take a quick pic with your cellphone for later identification.
  • As mentioned before, don’t take pain relievers as they amplify the blood clotting interference of snake venom.
  • No ice. It contributes to tissue damage.

Carry These Snake Bite Supplies

If your wilderness survival gear, doesn’t already have these items, add:

Final Thoughts About Handling Bites from Snakes

While the prospect of a snake bite may instill fear, remember that fear can be combated with understanding and proactive measures. Stay vigilant, educate yourself about local wildlife, and always carry a first aid kit tailored to handle potential snake bites. With this newfound awareness and confidence, you can venture into the wilderness knowing that you possess the tools to handle serpent safety.

What items do you carry in case of snake bites?

Originally published June 13, 2015.

25 thoughts on “How to Stay Alive if a Snake Bites You”

  1. Bad, bad advice about not sucking out the snake venom. An easy way to prevent venom from being swallowed or entering around the gum lines in your mouth is to keep cellophane with you at all times. Place the cellophane or thin plastic (a sandwich bag will work fine too) over the wound before placing your mouth on it. Just this week a Texas mom saved the life of her small son by sucking out rattlesnake venom. Furthermore, what possible good would washing a snake bite wound with soap and water do anyone, especially after teotwawki. thanks

    1. Sucking venom out is a great way to risk introducing bacteria, creating more needless complications. The current emergency room protocols recommend against sucking or otherwise extracting, though EMS medical directors in some jurisdictions still recommend extraction.

  2. Obtain antivenin from your vet for your “Dogs”. The 10cc kit used to also have a 1cc vial to test for allergic reaction. Get the test started before arriving at the hospital to save time.

  3. The mother/child was very lucky and / or the snake had short fangs or was unable to a good bite or had recently bitten something else.
    If a good bite was made, the venom will go into the epidermis tissue , into the subcutaneous tissue or underlying muscle and fat.
    You can’t suck it out of there.
    Been there, 40 years emergency medicine, former SF Medic in poisonous snake country.
    Best Regards,

    1. The Survival Mom

      Agreed, Rick. She was lucky and the doctors said as much. At any given moment, most of us probably have a small cut or abrasion inside our mouths, which make it possible for venom to enter our bloodstreams. Sucking out venom isn’t a practice that has been recommended for decades. I learned to not do that when I took a first aid class in 8th grade, and I don’t even want to tell you how long ago that was!!

      1. That’s why saran wrap or thin plastic is placed over the puncture marks before sucking out the venom. What does it take to get this point across?

        1. The Survival Mom

          And why is it so hard for you to understand that the venom sucked out, if there is any, has to go into your mouth?? That’s where the problem lies. At that point it can enter the bloodstream of the person assisting the victim.

          1. With a square foot or more of wrap over the wound how in the world is the venom going into my mouth. It stays under the wrap and never touches the inside of anyone’s mouth. Unless you puncture the plastic then you are safe. Simple as that. thanks

  4. If you have access to ice or very cold water, use it to keep the bite area very cold. This slows down the movement of the venom, and gives you more time to get to medical help.
    One of the best plants to use is plantain, a common lawn weed, but also prevalent in outdoor areas. Chew up a few leaves to a pulp and place it over the bite area and wherever the redness has spread to. Continue to use the plantain every half hour or so. Eating this herb will also help, but do not heat it in a tea, as heat destroys some of benefits of plantain. We should all be familiar with this important herb. It works very well to stop the pain associated with spider bites and stings in just minutes.

    1. The Survival Mom

      Gerald, when I wrote this article, I didn’t even consider the possibility of looking for medicinal plants. Thanks for mentioning plantain! I would definitely NOT encourage people to go off looking for that, or anything else, unless it’s readily available and they are VERY familiar with it.

      1. Plantain is easily identified once you see a picture and read the description. The leaves have parallel veins that run the length of the leaves. A very common lawn weed.

        1. The Survival Mom

          Thanks for the details! We have an herbalist here on our writing staff who, I believe, has written about plantain before.

  5. Stealth Spaniel

    Yowee-it doesn’t take a trip to the “Wilderness” to encounter a rattlesnake! I am living in the middle of suburbia, but with the drought in California, they are coming out with a vengeance. I went to take the garbage can out, last night when it was still light. Hisses….It got louder, so I slightly moved the can. 4+ foot snake, ready to strike!! I got the Head Gardener to come kill it. This snake was mighty mad-the body was still moving and the head still snapping 20 minutes later. It was a terrifying experience, and I feel blessed to have not been bitten!
    The anti venom shot that a vet can give a dog ONLY keeps the dog alive long enough to get a bitten dog to the vet. It is not a panacea. You still must take the dog to a vet as soon as possible, because some dogs do not make it anyway. Be prepared to open your wallet- it usually costs $5000 to save a dog. They need repeated anti venom serum and blood transfusions. Rattlesnake bites are vicious things! The worst bite is from a baby rattler. They do not know how to control their venom so they dump all of it. Rattlesnake training is very beneficial to dogs.
    For people, keep your hands out of any garden spot you can’t see-and kick the can!!

  6. Now i have been told by medical professional that poison only reacts if swallowed
    and venom only if injected like snake bite—

    sooooo– back to the research– or say, buddy- i’m gonna go get some herbs and if i dont make it back… well its been good to know you– do you mind if i keep your Harley and date your wife? Sucker!!! hahahah

    Seems like everyone is mainly guessing here with teh advice,,, for once can we get the right advice…?

  7. Been bit by copperhead it was an adult so hurt and turn black/blue but no venom.
    Most adult snake don’t wast venom unless there after food .young one are most dangers but shock is still your biggest problem most adult have hours to get help the sooner the better. Watch for signs of shock and treat don’t panic
    Give them room and they will give you room
    No exp. just a farmer

  8. Also I was told by a doctor that treats snake bites it is good to know the type and length of the snake as well as if the victim is azmatic. Anti venom can kick it in. Had a scout get bit by a copperhead. Don’t restrict blood flow if on hand or feet.

  9. It’s interesting to me that all the advice is the same ,go to a Dr or hospital ,I have been miles from anyone or any way to contact help ,Ten Mike hike out is not good advice ,I am looking for best way to treat rattle snake bite alone in the wilds.Hot compresses will draw out blood poisoning ,will that work with snake venom ?has anyone tried it?

  10. I strongly recommend that people join the National Snakebite Support group on Facebook, download their protocols written by EXPERTS in snakebite care – there have protocols for both humans and pets. Key is getting to medical care ASAP, keeping the bitten extremity higher than the heart and listening to experts. These docs and vets regularly treat bite victims.

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