Emergency Care For You

Emergencies A-Z

Snake Bites

 
Snake Bites
Dr. Eric Lavonas, emergency physician at the Rocky Mountain Poison Center in Denver, CO

Snake bites can be life-threatening if the snake is poisonous. Poisonous snakes found in the United States include rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouth water moccasins and coral snakes. If you see a snake, do not touch it, but instead, back away from it slowly.

If you are bitten, remember the color and shape of the snake. This information will help medical providers treat you. If you are walking in high water, and you are not sure you have been bitten by a snake, look for a pair of puncture marks at the wound and for redness and swelling, as well as severe pain.

If bitten by a pit viper (rattlesnake, copperhead, cottonmouth):

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
  • Cleanse the wound, but do not try to cut around the fang marks and suck out the venom. People who do this often do more damage than good.
  • Immobilize the bitten area and keep it at the same level as the heart. Do not try to apply a tourniquet.
  • It's important for the victim to remain calm and move as little as possible. That will help prevent the spread of the poison through the body.
  • Do not apply ice or flush the wound with water. 

If bitten by an elapid snake (coral snake):

  • Take an additional step of wrapping the area in an elastic roller bandage so that it is snug but not tight; the point farthest from the heart should be wrapped first.
  • Check the area for sensation, increased skin temperature and redness before and after bandaging.
  • Minor swelling and itching can be treated with cool compresses, over-the-counter oral antihistamines or hydrocortisone creams. Use only as directed.