North American Snakebites 101

Copperhead BiteThe danger of venomous snakes in North America is (typically) nothing more than a severe case of human exaggeration and paranoia. Deaths due to snakebites are all things considered, very rare. This irrational fear of snakes has led to many innocent and often non-venomous snakes being killed on sight. In general, snakes only attack if you disturb and startle them. North American snakebites are seldom fatal but can be extremely painful.

There are two main types of venom: neurotoxins and hemotoxins. Neurotoxins paralyze your muscles. These are very dangerous as they can paralyze your heart and respiratory muscles. Hemotoxins are used by Snakes to soften up the prey and make it easier to digest. This venom can cause serious tissue damage. Some Snakes have venom that combines both effects.

Avoiding Snakebites

  • Wear high boots and long pants in places where you suspect that there could be snakes.

  • Use a stick and tap the ground in front of you if you suspect the presence of snakes. This will minimize the chances of you "sneaking up" on a snake.

  • If a snake lashed you but did not hit you, make sure to check your boots and clothing for possible broken teeth. Snake teeth can still poison you even if they are broken off and stuck in the leather of your boot.

  • In places that inhibit Scorpions and spiders, make sure to check your boots before sticking your bare feet in.

  • Take antivenins with you only after consulting your doctor. Many people are allergic to many antivenins which in turn cause even more complications than an actual snake bite.

Treating Snakebites

Remain calm.
Easier said than done; most people get hysterical when they are bitten by snake, as they expect to die at any moment. While the truth is in fact that roughly 90% of all bites from venomous snakes result in an envenomation, only about 10% of all venomous snakebites are what are called dry bites where the snake bites the person, but does not inject any venom. Presuming that you were in fact envenomated, getting excited will only cause the venom to spread through your body more rapidly. If you are hyperventilating, use a bag or cup your hands in front of your mouth to bring carbon dioxide levels back to normal. Settle down, you are not dead yet!

Try to identify the snake or at least note down the snake's characteristics. This information will help medical personnel in your treatment. You do not have to kill the snake and bring it with you. This would just increase the chance of more bites. But if you already killed the snake in your panic reaction, then you might as well bring it with you.

Rinse the bitten area with water.
Closely examine the bite and check if it has actually caused venom to enter your body. The fangs of a snake leave bigger and deeper marks than its other teeth.

Signs of Envenomation

  • Within 10-30 minutes: the venom will cause a fiery (sharp), circulating pain and swelling around the bitten area.

  • Within 30-90 minutes: numbness, tingling, and/or muscle twitches may occur.

  • Within two hours: weakness, headache, nausea, vomiting, fainting, and/or increased heart and breathing rate.

  • If you have a venom suction device, use it as soon as possible. If nothing else, it's a great placebo. Even the "best" device out there, the Sawyer Extractor, has only been scientifically proven to remove 1/1000 of the venom! If you do not have a suction device, do NOT suck out the poison with your mouth! You're not John Wayne!

  • Do not apply a tourniquet.

  • Do not cut around the wound.

If a hospital can be reached within a period of 1-2 hours then it is safe to walk out and go to the hospital. In general, try to move the stricken body part as little as possible so use a sling for your arms. If you have been stricken in your leg, do not run but make your way to your car or the hospital in a normal tempo.

These are the basic things you need to know about Snake and Scorpion Bites. Take note that it is essential to have at least the basics of First Aid knowledge and training if you are engaged in Outdoor Activities such as Hiking so you will know what to do in case you need to administer First Aid.

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