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Snake bites

Bites - snakes; Venomous snake bites 

Snake bites occur when a snake bites the skin. They are medical emergencies if the snake is venomous.

Venomous animals account for a large number of deaths and injuries worldwide. Snakes alone are estimated to inflict 2.5 million venomous bites each year, resulting in about 125,000 deaths. The actual number may be much larger. Southeast Asia, India, Brazil, and areas of Africa have the most deaths due to snakebite.

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Snake bite on the finger
Snake bite on the finger
Snake bite

Presentation

Venomous snakes - Series
Snakebite (venomous) - Series

Considerations

Snake bites can be deadly if not treated quickly. Because of their smaller body size, children are at higher risk for death or serious complications due to snake bites.

The right antivenom can save a person's life. Getting to an emergency room as quickly as possible is very important. If properly treated, many snake bites will not have serious effects.

Even the bite of a non-venomous snake can cause significant injury.

Causes

Most species of snake are harmless and their bites are not life threatening.

Venomous snake bites include bites by any of the following:

Most snakes will avoid people if possible, but all snakes will bite as a last resort when threatened or surprised. If you are bitten by any snake, consider it a serious event.

Symptoms

Symptoms depend on the type of snake, but may include:

Rattlesnake bites are painful when they occur. Symptoms usually begin right away and may include:

Cottonmouth and copperhead bites are painful right when they occur. Symptoms, which usually begin right away, may include:

Coral snake bites may be painless at first. Major symptoms may not develop for hours. DO NOT make the mistake of thinking you will be fine if the bite area looks good and you are not in a lot of pain. Untreated coral snake bites can be deadly. Symptoms may include:

First Aid

Follow these steps to provide first aid:

1. Keep the person calm. Reassure them that bites can be effectively treated in an emergency room. Restrict movement, and keep the affected area below heart level to reduce the flow of venom.

2. Remove any rings or constricting items, because the affected area may swell. Create a loose splint to help restrict movement of the area.

3. If the area of the bite begins to swell and change color, the snake was probably venomous.

4. Monitor the person's vital signs -- temperature, pulse, rate of breathing, and blood pressure -- if possible. If there are signs of shock (such as paleness), lay the person flat, raise the feet about a foot (30 centimeters), and cover the person with a blanket.

5. Get medical help right away.

6. If possible, make note of the color, shape, and size of the snake. This may help with treatment of the bite. Do not waste time hunting for the snake, and do not trap it or pick it up. If the snake is dead, be careful of the head -- a snake can actually bite (from a reflex) for several hours after it's dead.

Do Not

Follow these precautions:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call 911 or your local emergency number if someone has been bitten by a snake. If possible, call ahead to the emergency room so that antivenom can be ready when the person arrives.

Your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Prevention

To prevent snake bites:

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Venomous snakes. www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/snakes/symptoms.html. Updated May 31, 2018. Accessed December 12, 2018.

Otten EJ. Venomous animal injuries. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 55.

Tibballs J. Envenomation. In: Bersten AD, Handy JM, eds. Oh's Intensive Care Manual. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 86.

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Review Date: 9/23/2019  

Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Emeritus, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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