First Aid and Treating Snake Bites
North America has two kinds of poisonous snakes: The pit vipers (rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and water moccasins) and Elapids (coral snakes). One or more of these snakes can be found almost everywhere in the continental U.S. Being cold-blooded, snakes are most active during the warmer months. Interestingly, not every bite from a venomous snake transfers its poison to the victim; 30% of these bites will show no ill effects, probably having to do with the duration of time the snake has its fangs in you.
How to Prevent Snake Bites
An ounce of prevention, they say, is worth a pound of cure. Be sure to wear good solid high-top boots 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 “hear” ground vibrations better than those in the air caused by, for instance, shouting).
Snake bites that cause a burning pain immediately are likely to have poison 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 taste in their mouth. With pit vipers, 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. By the way, coral snakes (pictured above) appear very similar to their non-venomous look-alike, the king snake. They are both red, yellow and black. The old saying goes: ” red touches yellow, kill a fellow; red touches black, venom it lacks”. I probably wouldn’t bet my life on this, though.
The treatment for a poisonous snake bite is Anti-venin, but this will probably be unavailable in a collapse situation. The following strategy, therefore, will be useful: First, keep the victim calm. Stress increases blood flow and endangers the patient by speeding the venom into the system. As with any bite, clean the wound thoroughly to remove any venom on the skin, and remove rings and bracelets from an affected extremity. Position the extremity below the level of the heart (also slows the transport of venom).
It is no longer recommended to make an incision and try to suck out the venom with your mouth. If done after 3 minutes, 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, see below) is safer and can remove 1/3 of the venom from the wound if used very soon after the bite occurs.
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. The limb shoud then be rested, and perhaps immobilized with a splint or sling. The bandage should be about as tight as when strapping a sprained ankle. If it is too tight, the patient will reflexively move the limb, and move the venom around. This strategy also works for bites from venomous lizards, like Gila monsters.
As always, the above advice pertains to a situation where there is no medical care available. If you can get to a hospital or clinic, do so as soon as possible! Medical preparedness begins with you.
Joe Alton MD