There are approximately 30 species of venomous snakes in the United States and most of these are rattlesnakes (others include coral snakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths). They are responsible for a sizeable portion of US venomous snake bites, as well as most fatal bites.
As these snakes can be found in most states, it’s important for hikers, climbers, and adventurers to know how to deal with them and what to do in the event of a rattlesnake bite.
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What to Do If You Are Bitten By a Rattlesnake
If you suspect that you may have been bitten by a snake, follow these steps:
Check the Snake Bite
The first step is to check whether or not you were actually bitten by a snake. If you didn’t see the animal, you may have just brushed against a thorn, sat on something sharp, or been bitten by another creature.
Look for fang marks. If it was a snake bite, there will be two puncture wounds.
Venomous snake bites will cause the skin to become discolored, inflamed, and painful.
Other snake bite symptoms include vomiting, nausea, dizziness, sweating, slurred speech, and mental changes. All of these are very serious and indicate that the person needs immediate assistance.
Get Help and Identify the Snake
Once you have identified a snake bite, it’s time to call for help. Dial 911, explain your situation and get help as soon as you can.
You can also call the National Poison Control Center (800 222-1222) at any time of the day or night. It’s not an emergency number, so feel free to call even if you just need some advice about a suspected snake bite.
They will ask you which snake bit you, so pay attention to its size and markings. Don’t try to kill it or capture it. That’s not necessary. The snake’s markings, along with your location, will help them to determine what type of snake bit you and what antivenom is needed.
Stay Calm and Treat the Snake Bite
As you wait for help, try to stay calm. Make sure the bite site is below the level of your heart—sit or lie down if necessary.
Clean the wound with soap and water, if possible, and apply a clean bandage.
Free the Area
Remove tight clothing and jewelry—anything that could restrict blood flow and cause problems if the bite site or affected limb begins to swell.
Signal For Help
If you don’t have any cell phone service, follow the steps above, keep the bite area clean, and signal for help. You need someone to either call for help or rush you to the emergency room.
What Not To Do
There are a lot of dangerous myths out there when it comes to animal attacks, and snake bites are no exception. If you have been bitten by a snake, avoid doing any of the following:
Don’t Apply a Tourniquet
Although it sounds like a good idea, applying a tourniquet will just restrict the venom to a specific location. The venom will be concentrated in that area and so it’ll be more likely to cause harm.
It sounds counterintuitive, but letting the toxin spread will help to dilute it and reduce damage.
Don’t Engage in Strenuous Activity
Avoid engaging in any heavy activity. This can be difficult if you’re alone and don’t have a cell phone reception, but it’s important to avoid doing anything that will quicken your heart rate.
Don’t Use Suction Devices on Snake Bites
Suction devices were once commonplace and it was believed that they could remove some or most of the venom. However, their use is now discouraged as they don’t remove enough of the venom to make a difference and may damage the tissue.
Don’t Apply Cold Packs
Cold can reduce swelling, but it’s also believed that snake bites can reduce resistance to frostbite and reduce healthy circulation.
Don’t Eat or Drink Anything
Avoid alcohol, food, and painkillers. Don’t consume anything until you can get proper medical care.
Can Rattlesnakes Bite Through Hiking Boots?
Rattlesnake bites are incredibly powerful and can go straight through clothing and leather boots. There are “snake-proof” boots, though, and you can also wear thick leather footwear to reduce the risk and limit the damage.
Are Snake Bite Kits Effective?
Many snake bite kits are ineffective and based on the myths surrounding these bites. They often contain extractors and tourniquets, which are no longer recommended for the treatment of snake bites.
Instead, take a first aid kit with you on your hikes. Not only will it contain bandages to wrap the bite area, but it can also be used in the event of grazes, abrasions, and other problems.
What Are the Symptoms of Venomous Snake Bites?
The exact symptoms will depend on the type of snake and the wound site, but they can include:
- Blood discharge
- Excessive sweating
- Rapid heart rate
- Burning sensation
- Blurred vision
- Loss of muscle coordination
How Many People Die from Venomous Snake Bites?
About 5 people are killed by venomous snakes every year in the United States.
Many of these deaths are the result of preexisting medical conditions or occur because the patient wasn’t able to get medical help, but there have also been multiple incidents of young and otherwise healthy people dying from snake envenomation.
Some of the most notable deaths to have occurred from rattlesnake bites in the United States include:
- Priscilla Meredith (62) – Meredith was bitten by a timber rattlesnake in Waverly Georgia, in 2019. She was in a friend’s garden at the time and as she had multiple severe allergies, she was not given any antivenom. Meredith was placed into a medically-induced coma for a few weeks and eventually passed away.
- Ernest Burch (80) – Burch encountered a timber rattlesnake at his home in Armuchee, Georgia. He didn’t want to harm or kill the animal, so he tried to move it out of the way with a broom. Unfortunately, he lost his balance, fell on the snake, and was bitten on the arm. He was given antivenom after being rushed to hospital but he died shortly thereafter.
- Russel Davis (39) – Davis was bitten by a rattlesnake in Elk County, Pennsylvania. He was airlifted to hospital but suffered a cardiac arrest on-route and was pronounced dead upon arriving at the hospital.
- Jamie Coots (42) – Coots was attacked by a rattlesnake in Middlesboro, Kentucky, back in 2014. He was a rattlesnake handler who featured on the show Snake Salvation and was bitten during one of his services. He dropped the snakes after the bite but then picked them back up and continued his service. Paramedics arrived to assist him, but his family refused medical help, saying that it went against his religion. He died shortly afterward.
- Douglas John Hilier (48) – Hilier encountered what he thought was a dead snake on the road in Cleveland, Georgia. He stopped the car and tried to remove the snake’s rattles, but it wasn’t dead and attacked him. He received medical help and was placed in intensive care, where he remained for nearly 6 weeks before passing away. Although he was just 48, Hilier is said to have suffered from a number of severe allergies.
- David Giles (59) – Giles was bitten by a snake (likely a rattlesnake) in 2015. He was alone and while he usually carried a snake bite kit, he didn’t have it on him at the time. Giles drove to get help and collapsed at a nearby house.
- Brayden Bullard (4) – A timber rattlesnake bit young Brayden Bullard while he was planting watermelons in his backyard in Bryceville, Florida. He was rushed to hospital but died a couple of weeks later.
How to Prevent Rattlesnake Bites
Prevention is the best cure and being aware of your surroundings could prevent the drama, panic, and potential complications associated with a rattlesnake bite.
Be very wary whenever you’re walking through tall grass or hiking in snake territory. If possible, avoid tall grass completely.
Don’t step over logs and rocks without checking what’s on the other side. Don’t run blindly into areas that could harbor snakes.
Get Out of Its Way
Rattlesnakes attack when they feel threatened and they extend themselves by 40% of their body length in a split second. Whenever you encounter snakes on your hike, give them a wide berth.
Kick Your Feet
If you’re walking through an area where you can’t see your feet, kick out as you walk. Kicking dirt, dust, and little stones ahead of you will warn nearby snakes of your presence and encourage them to get out of the way.
Most snakes scurry away after a while. If there is a rattlesnake on the trail in front of you and you can’t go around it, simply wait for it to slip away.
Should You Try To Suck the Venom Out of a Snake Bite?
One of the most enduring (and dangerous) myths about snake bites suggests that you should try to suck out the venom. It’s something you’ll see in countless films and TV shows and something that millions believe.
But trying to help a snake bite victim by sucking out the venom will just put you at risk. If you have any open wounds in your mouth or on your lips, the venom will enter your bloodstream and expose you as well.
Summary: Surviving a Rattlesnake Bite
Rattlesnakes can be very aggressive and territorial. Give them room, pay them respect, and if you’re bitten by one, get help as soon as you can.
Fatal snake bites are rare, but if you ignore the guidelines above, you’ll have less chance of making it out alive.