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Surviving a Snake Bite

Surviving a Snake Bite

“Throughout the spring and summer months, the numbers (of snakebite-related ER visits) double, triple, maybe even more than that,”1 says Diane Calello, MD, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark.

Snake season is in full effect when the weather starts warming up. Snakes will start crawling from their winter hideouts to seek food and may come across humans along the way.

The Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation states there are about 7,000 to 8,000 snake bites per year and only about five or six fatalities from a snake bite per year. Even though the numbers seem slim, encounters with snakes could end up with you in the emergency room if proper precautions aren’t taken.

Snake Basics
When it comes to venomous snakes in the United States, there are two categories: pit vipers and coral snakes.

Surviving a Snake Bite

Pit Viper Snakes
Rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths are all considered pit viper snakes. All three snakes share common physical traits like triangular heads and vertical nostrils. Of these snakes, rattlesnake venom is the most dangerous and can cause the most problems. Cottonmouth snakebites are venomous as well, but do not cause as much damage as a rattlesnake.

Coral Snakes
Mostly found in Florida and Georgia, coral snakes are black and red with either white or yellow bands.

Snake Venom
Even though pit viper bites are more common than coral snake bites, both bites are not always poisonous. This is because snakes can control when and how much venom to release with their bites. In the image below, you can see the gland where snakes hold their venom and the muscles they use to release the venom.

Surviving a Snake Bite

The bite depends on how great the snakes determine the threat is. Dr. Bret Nicks, a professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Salem, North Carolina explains, “Venom causes pain and swelling and perhaps some blistering at the site of the bite, and it damages tissue.”1

Pit Viper Bite Damage
Venom from a pit viper snake can be the most destructive because it contains different compounds that destroy tissue and deteriorate the proteins that allow your blood to clot. The combined tissue damage and bleeding contributes to swelling, which can occur within the hour of being bitten.

Surviving a Snake Bite

Coral Snake Bite Damage
A snake bite from coral snakes can take 12 to 18 hours before any symptoms show. Their venom contains neurotoxins which affects the brain’s ability to control the body’s muscles. As scary as it may sound, no one has reported a fatality due to a coral snake bite since the 1960s.1

Symptoms of a Snake Bite
As stated before, some snake bites can take up to 18 hours before showing signs. In any case, you should immediately alert an emergency response team so they can better assess how to treat the bite. In the event you’re bitten, monitor any symptoms such as:

  • Swelling
  • Numbness
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Shock
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Low blood pressure
  • Skin discoloration
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Weak muscles
  • Blurred vision
  • Paralysis
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tingling
  • Diarrhea
  • Thirst

Do’s and Don’ts of a Snake Bite

If you’re bitten by a snake, you should try to take these actions if at all possible:

  • Remain calm and move away from the snake.
  • Seek medical attention immediately.
  • Remove jewelry or tight clothing to prepare for the swelling.
  • Clean the wound, but don't flush it with water. Cover it with a clean, dry dressing.
  • Keep the limb still, unless you have to walk.
  • Keep the limb at heart level, in a splint.
To ensure a quick and healthy recovery from a snake bite, do not:
  • Wait to see how you feel before you seek medical attention
  • Take a risk or waste time trying to capture or kill the snake
  • Apply ice or heat to the bite
  • Cut the wound
  • Suck on the wound with your mouth
  • Use a suction device on the wound
  • Shock the wound with electricity
  • Drink alcohol, drink caffeine, eat, or take medications

Prevention

Being aware of where snakes typically are, how to move around them, and how to not provoke them are the best ways to prevent a bite. When you’re in a situation that may involve snakes, try these tips:

  • Pay attention to where you walk. A snake likely won’t bite unless you step on it.
  • Avoid alcohol in order to remain alert.
  • Carry a walking stick to tap the ground in front of you. If a snake feels threatened, it will be more likely to attack the stick.
  • Wear boots and long pants to protect your ankles.
  • Wear a headlamp or carry a flashlight at night so you can see snakes before you have a surprise encounter.

Fortunately, snakes in the United States are typically not aggressive and only bite when they feel threatened. The best way to avoid a snake bite is to be aware of where to look for snakes, take appropriate precautions to dodge them, and never approach them. In the event you’re bitten, take the proper actions and prepare to spend up to 24 hours in the hospital.

This advice is not from a trained medical professional.

1. WebMD, How to Survive Snake Season, Even if You Get Bitten, 2018

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