In a grid-down scenario, you will find yourself out in the woods a lot more frequently, gathering firewood, hunting, and foraging for edible wild plants. As such, we will likely encounter a snake or two. Most snakes aren’t poisonous, but even non-venomous snake bites have potential for infection.
Poison is, perhaps, the wrong word to use here; venoms and poisons are not the same thing. Poisons are absorbed by the skin or digestive system, but venoms must enter the tissues or blood directly. Therefore, it is usually not dangerous to drink snake venom unless you have, say, a cut in your mouth (don’t try it, though).
North America has two kinds of venomous snakes: The pit vipers (rattlesnakes, water moccasins) and Elapids (coral snakes). One or more of these snakes can be found almost everywhere in the continental U.S. A member of another viper family, the common adder, is the only venomous snake in Britain, but it and other adders are common throughout Europe (except for Ireland, thanks to St. Patrick).
These snakes generally have hollow fangs through which they deliver venom. Snakes are most active during the warmer months and, therefore, most bite injuries are seen then. Not every bite from a venomous snake transfers its poison to the victim; 25-30% of these bites will show no ill effects. This probably has to do with the duration of time the snake has its fangs in its victim.
An ounce of prevention, they say, is worth a pound of cure. Be sure to wear good solid high-top boots and long pants when hiking in the wilderness. Treading heavily creates ground vibrations and noise, which will often cause snakes to hit the road. Snakes have no outer ear, so they “hear” ground vibrations better than those in the air caused by, for instance, shouting.
Many snakes are active at night, especially in warm weather. Some activities of daily survival, such as gathering firewood, are inadvisable without a good light source. In the wilderness, it’s important to look where you’re putting your hands and feet. Be especially careful around areas where snakes might like to hide, such as hollow logs, under rocks, or in old shelters. Wearing heavy gloves would be a reasonable precaution.
A snake doesn’t always slither away after it bites you. It’s likely that it still has more venom that it can inject, so move out of its territory or abolish the threat in any way you can. Killing the snake, however, may not render it harmless: it can reflexively bite for a period of time, even if its head has been severed from its body.
Snake bites that cause a burning pain immediately are likely to have venom in them. Swelling at the site may begin as soon as five minutes afterwards, and may travel up the affected area. Pit viper bites tend to cause bruising and blisters at the site of the wound. Numbness may be noted in the area bitten, or perhaps on the lips or face. Some victims describe a metallic or other strange taste in their mouths.
With pit vipers, bruising is not uncommon and a serious bite might start to cause spontaneous bleeding from the nose or gums. Coral snake bites, however, will cause mental and nerve issues such as twitching, confusion and slurred speech. Later, nerve damage may cause difficulty with swallowing and breathing, followed by total paralysis.
Coral snakes appear very similar to their look-alike, the non-venomous king snake. They both have red, yellow and black bands and are commonly confused with each other. The old saying goes: ”red touches yellow, kill a fellow; red touches black, venom it lacks”. This adage only applies to coral snakes in North America, however.
Coral snakes are not as aggressive as pit vipers and will prefer fleeing to attacking. Once they bite you, however, they tend to hold on; Pit vipers prefer to bite and let go quickly. Unlike coral snakes, pit vipers may not relinquish their territory to you, so prepare to possibly be bitten again.
What to Do if You’re Bitten by a Snake
The treatment for a venomous snake bite is “Anti-venin”, an animal or human serum with antibodies capable of neutralizing a specific biological toxin. This product will probably be unavailable in a long-term survival situation.
The following strategy, therefore, will be useful:
- Keep the victim calm. Stress increases blood flow, thereby endangering the patient by speeding the venom into the system.
- Stop all movement of the injured extremity. Movement will move the venom into the circulation faster, so do your best to keep the limb still.
- Clean the wound thoroughly to remove any venom that isn’t deep in the wound, and
- Remove rings and bracelets from an affected extremity. Swelling is likely to occur.
- Position the extremity below the level of the heart; this also slows the transport of venom.
- Wrap with compression bandages as you would an orthopedic injury, but continue it further up the limb than usual. Bandaging begins two to four inches above the bite (towards the heart), winding around and moving up, then back down over the bite and past it towards the hand or foot.
- Keep the wrapping about as tight as when dressing a sprained ankle. If it is too tight, the patient will reflexively move the limb, and move the venom around.
- Do not use tourniquets, which will do more harm than good.
- Draw a circle, if possible, around the affected area. As time progresses, you will see improvement or worsening at the site more clearly. This is a useful strategy to follow any local reaction or infection.
The limb should then be rested, and perhaps immobilized with a splint or sling. The less movement there is, the better. Keep the patient on bed rest, with the bite site lower than the heart for 24-48 hours. This strategy also works for bites from venomous lizards, like Gila monsters.
It is no longer recommended to make an incision and try to suck out the venom with your mouth. If done more than 3 minutes after the actual bite, it would remove perhaps 1/1000 of the venom and could cause damage or infection to the bitten area. A Sawyer Extractor (a syringe with a suction cup) is more modern, but is also fairly ineffective in eliminating more than a small amount of the venom. These methods fail, mostly, due to the speed at which the venom is absorbed.
Interestingly, snake bites cause less infections than bites from, say, cats, dogs, or humans. As such, antibiotics are used less often in these cases.
Joe Alton, M.D., aka Dr. Bones
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