How to Prevent & Treat Snake Bites

There are a lot of dangers to be aware of while camping. From the benign like chafed thighs to the truly dangerous like getting burned while tending your campfire. Another danger you need to be on the lookout for is snakes. While snakes won’t go out of their way to attack you, you can accidentally stumble upon one without knowing until you feel the bite.

Although not all reptiles are venemous, certain snakes, including coral snakes, cottonmouths (also known as water moccasins), copperheads, and rattlesnakes possess destructive and deadly venom. However, the chances of stumbling upon one while hiking or camping is rare, and the odds of being bitten are small. But it’s possible nonetheless.

To stay safe, we need to learn about snakes, discover the best ways to avoid them, and take steps to prevent the unthinkable: a dreaded snakebite.

Which Snakes Are Venomous?

Garden variety Eastern garter snakes, emerald tree boas, rough green snakes, and pythons may look lethal, but they’re actually non-venomous snakes. On the other hand, the predatory strike of a rattlesnake or the warning lunge of a copperhead can make the bravest man or woman become paralized with fear.

The United States boasts four groups of snakes with venomous bites. They are as follows:


Of all the venomous snakes in the US, rattlesnakes make up the largest group, encompassing 14 species. Their distribution ranges from coast to coast, so they’re found nearly everywhere in the nation.

Rattlesnakes have “pits” that consist of heat-sensing organs on their faces that put them in the pit viper subfamily. Their heat sensors act as a radiation detector, making it easier to discover their next victim, including small rodents, rats, mice, lizards, ground squirrels, and other prey.

Fortunately for people who love the great outdoors, rattlesnakes come with their own warning system. The rattling sound emanating from their tails lets hikers, campers, and others know they’re in the vicinity, warning us of their presence.

Rattlesnake venom causes excruciating pain, swelling, tissue destruction, and internal bleeding because it contains a deadly hemotoxin. Rattlers mostly avoid contact with humans and other large mammals, but prairie and eastern diamondbacks are aggressive, so it’s best to avoid them and all other rattlesnakes too.


Identifying the Copperhead Snake

The copperhead snake is another member of the pit viper subfamily. This group comprises of five species ranging in the west, southern New England, and the southeastern United States. Unlike their cousin the rattlesnake, they don’t have a distinctive warning noise reminding predators and prey of their existence. But they do employ a dry warning bite if a threat gets too close, which contains very little venom. However, they’re more likely to freeze, remain camouflaged by their ambiguous colors, and eventually slither away safely undetected.

Copperhead bites aren’t fatal, but the symptoms are hazardous and uncomfortable, so professional medical care and treatment is necessary.

Cottonmouths/Water Moccasins

Cottonmouths, also known by their scientific designation Agkistrodon piscivorus, are members of the pit viper subfamily. They mainly make their home in the southeastern United States, where they’re found in plentiful supply. Their bite has less venom than the bite of a rattlesnake, but their other predatory qualities make them a frightening threat.

Cottonmouths spend time near the water and occasionally disrupt swimming and other water-related recreational activities. They also climb trees. Due to their aggressive nature, they may drop onto boaters and fishermen in total surprise.

Coral Snakes

Of the deadliest snakes in North America, two of them are species of coral snake. These snakes are members of the same family as mambas, sea snakes, and cobras. Coral snakes look similar to king snakes, a nonvenomous species that is often kept as pets, but never confuse the two because it could mean the difference between life and death. Remember this rhyming phrase to quickly tell the difference between the two: “Red on black is good for Jack, but red on yellow kills a fellow.”

Coral snakes are reclusive, so they bite few people each year. However, they are a danger to humans, and their short fangs can swiftly penetrate the skin to deliver a paralytic neurotoxin that freezes the body and slows breathing to a grinding halt. Once bitten, the victim must receive large doses of anti-venom to recover; otherwise, they could die in a few hours from respiratory failure.

How to Prevent a Snake Bite

How to Prevent a Snake Bite

According to the CDC and the American Academy of Family Physicians, we can follow simple guidelines to avoid or prevent a snake bite. Their recommendations include:

Don’t Try to Handle a Snake

Unless you’re an expert, you likely don’t know if a snake is venomous or not, which is why it is important to avoid handling them at all costs. Otherwise, you might pick up a venomous snake, get bitten, and need emergency medical attention to counteract the venom.

Stay Away From Tall Grass & Types of Leaves

Reptiles hide in piles of leaves and tall grass in complete secrecy. You’ll hardly notice they’re around unless they want you to find them, but it’s already too late at that point. If you want to stay safe while backpacking, make sure you stay on the trail.

Avoid Climbing on Rocks and Piles of Wood

Snakes manage to stay hidden from detection because of their stealth and camouflage. Even the sharpest eyes might not notice them until it’s too late. They easily blend in and slither their way through many nooks and crannies, preferring to hide on rocks and within piles of wood. Avoid rocks and wood piles if snakes are known to populate the area.

Avoid Times When Snakes Are Active

Experts agree that snakes are mostly active on spring and summer days, specifically in the mornings. They prefer this time because the ground remains cool, the sun shines brightly, and the temperature maintains a comfortable 75 degrees.

Wear Boots & Long Pants When Working Outdoors

When working outdoors or deciding the best gear to bring camping such as a survival kit for camping, we recommend wearing leather boots and long pants because they deter fang penetration. If a snake attempts to bite you, you’ll appreciate the added protection because it’s hard for their teeth to rip through tough leather and thick material.

Because snakes roam around on the floor, your feet and legs are the most vulnerable areas on the body. They can easily bite your feet or slide up a pant leg before you realize what happened.

Wear Leather Gloves When Handling Brush & Debris

Leather gloves act as a powerful deterrent to snakes bites. Because reptiles tend to slither through brush and debris, your chances of coming into contact with one increases.

Don’t take unnecessary chances. Protect your hands and fingers with thick leather workman’s gloves to keep snake bites at bay.

Signs of Being Bitten By a Snake

How to Identify a Snakebite

While spending time in nature, it’s easy to cross paths with snakes. You can stumble upon them on bike trails, around the campgrounds, or simply walking through the woods. The CDC recommends looking for specific symptoms if you believe you’ve suffered a from a snake bite. Additionally, it’s important to have a camping emergency kit prepared during your trip. Symptoms vary depending on the species, but usually encompass:

Puncture Marks at the Wound

Puncture marks are a sure sign of a snake bite. They’re noticeable at the wound site and mean only one thing: reptile fangs have punctured your flesh.

Two puncture wounds are an indication of a venemous snake bite. Seek immediate medical assistance in this instance.

For a nonvenemous snake bite, you’ll notice an arc of tiny puncture wounds on the skin.

Redness & Swelling Around the Bite

Swelling and redness can appear around the bite once fangs penetrate the flesh. If this condition is visibly noticeable in any way, you’ve likely experienced a bite from a potentially dangerous snake. You should seek immediate medical assistance.

Severe Pain Around the Bite

You should consider every snake bite a medical emergency. A nonvenomous snake bite is the only exception to the rule. Pain can consist of a throbbing, bursting, or burning sensation. You should feel pain almost instantly after the bite. The pain even travels through the body. Agony and feelings of physical discomfort will move up the bitten limb as the pain spreads.

Common Symptoms of Snake Bites

Dangerous snake bites present common symptoms that hikers, mountain bikers, and campers should all know about. Although unlikely, a viper bite can bring on severe symptoms quickly. It’s wise to learn the warning signs of a venomous snake puncture for your own protection. Even more important, this knowledge might save the life of a friend or family member.

Local Effects

The local effects of snake bites leave fang marks, pain, swelling, and necrotic tissue. You need to look for two puncture wounds when examining a snake bite. Why? The presence of two puncture wounds means the bite came from a venomous snake.

The pain caused by a rattler, coral snake, cottonmouth, or copperhead feels unbearable because it burns, throbs, and radiates pain. The swelling isn’t much better because it looks bloated and quite unpleasant. It takes about 15 minutes to notice swelling from a viper bite. If you wait two or three days, the swelling becomes massive and deformed.


After a bite from a snake, you may experience bleeding. One would expect bleeding from a puncture wound. Did you know that more bleeding could occur? In fact, the severity of the bite could cause internal organs, old wounds, and your mouth to bleed.

Nervous System Effects

The toxins in snake venom attack the nervous system without regard for the victim. It’s so powerful that it can completely paralyze their body and eliminate all movement. The neurotoxins within the venom cause tendon twitches, weakened neck muscles, and overall muscle complications among other major issues.

Muscle Death

Among other problems, including vomiting, tingling limbs, and more, muscle death is another symptom to consider. The paralytic agents and myotoxins cause the muscle fibers to die. Once the dead muscle fibers enter the bloodstream, other complications, including kidney failure, become a real threat to your health.

Eye Damage

Snake venom is devious in so many ways. It can damage the eyes and causes distorted vision. A bite can cause vision to blur, among other dangerous symptoms.

Respiratory Effects

Acute respiratory failure is possible due to snake bites. But it’s more likely to come from a Krait or Cobra bite, not from snakes in North America. Even so, difficulty breathing is a common symptom and you should treat it as such. In rare cases, it could become impossible to breathe without intervention.

What to Do if Someone Is Bitten By a Snake

How to Treat a Snake Bite

You should immediately do five things after you or someone you know suffers from a snake bite. They suggest:

  • Calling an ambulance right away
  • Remain calm and try not to panic
  • Avoid the snake at all costs
  • Apply a pressure bandage and splint from your camping first aid kit
  • Leave the snake bite treatment to the professionals

What Not to Do if Someone Is Bitten By a Snake

You’re likely to cause more harm attempting to treat the wound yourself. It’s best to avoid making this mistake, as your life (or the life of a family member or friend) depends on it. No matter how tempting, try not to make the following mistakes:

Do Not Pick Up or Trap the Snake

Attempting to pick up or trap the snake isn’t the best idea. You’re more likely to get bit again or hurt some other way. Additionally, if you’re injured and already in a weakened state, you’re bound to stumble and fall. Remain seated and calm while waiting for help to arrive.

Do Not Wait for Symptoms to Appear

Waiting for symptoms to appear is asking for trouble. You’ll end up in serious danger if you wait too long. Get help before it’s too late.

Do Not Apply a Tourniquet

Cutting a snake bite, sucking on the wound, and applying a touriquet can lead to infection or damaged nerves and blood vessels. Taking the bite victim to the hospital is the only way to get them proper treatment, and anti-venom is the only effective countermeasure.

Do Not Slash the Wound With a Knife

Some people believe they can drain the venom from a snake bite by slashing open the wound with a knife. According to an article in Field & Stream, a father treated his daughter’s rattlesnake bite by slashing open her leg and immersing her wound in coal oil. The oil was supposed to drain the venom from the wound. However, there isn’t definitive proof this method is effective. Slashing the wound will likely hurt the snake bite recipient and add to their pain and suffering.

Do Not Suck Out the Venom

In older movies, you might see an actor suck the venom from a snake bite. Unfortunately, it isn’t effective in the real world. Anti-venom serum is the only effective way to treat this venom.

Do Not Apply Ice or Immerse in Water

Applying ice and water to a snake bite is the wrong approach, as the water and ice could wash away the venom. This might seem helpful to clean the wound and attempt to quell the swelling with ice, but the doctor must know the type of venom in order to treat the victim. Wiping away the evidence makes it harder to accertain this information.

Do Not Consume Alcohol as a Painkiller

Drinking alcohol is potentially life threatening after an accident, injury, or snake bite. Because alcohol thins the blood, a wound will bleed more than necessary with alcohol in the bloodstream. Too much blood loss can lead to rapid breathing, fatigue and weakness, confusion, unease, drowsiness, and unconsciousness.

Do Not Drink Caffeinated Beverages

Drinking caffeine is a poor choice after a snake bite. Coffee, soda, and other caffeinated beverages exacerbate the problem by causing the body to absorp venom faster, which leads to stronger and more dangerous symptoms.

The Bottom Line

Snake bites are serious business. We now know it’s possible to prevent them from ever happening. The odds are in your favor because snakes usually prefer to leave humans alone. If you are bit by a snake, however, you now have the knowledge and information to treat the wound before the proper authorities arrive.

Whether it’s snakebites or poison ivy, keep your eye out for summertime dangers while you’re in the great outdoors!

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