Snake bite

Alternative names
Bites - snakes


Each year in the U.S., there are over 8,000 poisonous snakebites - mostly in the summer season.

Poisonous snake bites are medical emergencies, and they can be deadly if not treated quickly. Children are at higher risk for death or serious complications because of their smaller body size. However, the right anti-venom can save a victim’s life. Getting the victim to an emergency room as quickly as possible is the top priority, as many snakebites if properly treated will not have serious effects.

Snake bites can cause severe local tissue damage and often require follow-up care.


Poisonous snake bites include bites by any of the following:

  • rattlesnake  
  • copperhead  
  • cottonmouth (water moccasin)  
  • coral snake

All snake species will bite when threatened or surprised, but most will usually avoid an encounter if possible and only bite as a last resort. Snakes found in and near water are frequently mistaken as being poisonous. Most species of snake are harmless and many bites will not be life-threatening, but unless you are absolutely sure that you know the species, treat it seriously.


  • bloody wound discharge  
  • blurred vision  
  • burning  
  • convulsions  
  • diarrhea  
  • dizziness  
  • excessive sweating  
  • fainting  
  • fang marks in the skin  
  • fever  
  • increased thirst  
  • localized tissue death  
  • loss of muscle coordination  
  • nausea and vomiting  
  • numbness and tingling  
  • rapid pulse  
  • severe localized pain  
  • skin discoloration  
  • swelling at the site of the bite  
  • weakness

First Aid

1. Keep the person calm, reassuring 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. If you have a pump suction device (such as that made by Sawyer), follow the manufacturer’s directions.

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

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

5. 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 victim flat, raise the feet about a foot, and cover the victim with a blanket.

6. Get medical help immediately.

7. Bring in the dead snake only if this can be done without risk of further injury. Do not waste time hunting for the snake, and do not risk another bite if it is not easy to kill the snake. Be careful of the head when transporting it - a dead snake can bite from reflex for up to an hour.

Do Not

  • DO NOT allow the victim to become over-exerted. If necessary, carry the victim to safety.  
  • DO NOT apply a tourniquet.  
  • DO NOT apply cold compresses to a snake bite.  
  • DO NOT cut into a snake bite with a knife or razor.  
  • DO NOT try to suction the venom by mouth.  
  • DO NOT give the victim stimulants or pain medications unless instructed to do so by a doctor.  
  • DO NOT give the victim anything by mouth.  
  • DO NOT raise the site of the bite above the level of the victim’s heart.

Call immediately for emergency medical assistance if
Call for help if someone has been bitten by a snake that you think may be poisonous, especially if the person experiences symptoms. Time is of the essence. If possible, call ahead to the emergency room so that anti-venom can be ready when the victim arrives.


  • Even though most snakes are not poisonous, avoid picking up or playing with any snake unless you have been properly trained.  
  • Many serious snakebites occur when someone deliberately provokes a snake.  
  • When hiking in an area known to have snakes, wear long pants and boots if possible.  
  • Avoid areas where snakes may be hiding - under rocks, logs, etc.  
  • Tap ahead of you with a walking stick before entering an area with an obscured view of your feet. Snakes will attempt to avoid you if given adequate warning.  
  • If you are a frequent hiker, consider purchasing a snakebite kit (available from hiking supply stores.) Do not use older snakebite kits, such as those containing razor blades and suction bulbs. Newer kits, such as those made by Sawyer, may be of value.


Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 8, 2012
by Brenda A. Kuper, M.D.

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.