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What to Do if You’re Bitten by a Snake

The treatment for a venomous snake bite is “Anti-venom”, 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

Joe Alton, M.D.

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