How dangerous are snakebites and how do I avoid them?

Is there any sound in nature that strikes more fear in your primeval brain than the dry clacking rattle of a rattlesnake? This sound triggers a rush of adrenaline and evokes a body and mind struggle between my reactionary desire to run versus my academic brain that calmly instructs me to stop, look, and see where the defensive warning sound is coming from.

The fear of snakes, and therefore receiving a snakebite, has allusions stemming back to the book of Genesis in the Bible. And as we head out into the outdoors this summer in search of our personal gardens of Eden, planning and preparing for a snakebite should put our minds at ease.

Just how dangerous are snakebites?

The majority of the approximately 5.4 million annual snakebites happen in the tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and lead to over 100,000 annual deaths—making the list of the World Health Organizations ‘neglected tropical diseases.’

In the United States, snakebites are estimated to result in as many as 9,000 annual emergency department visits. Almost all the venomous species reported are due to pit viper bites (rattlesnakes). While the actual number of undocumented snakebite victims is much higher, there are fortunately less than a dozen annual fatalities in the US.

Snakebite envenomation can lead to excruciating pain, severe tissue injury with long term disabilities, or even death without proper antivenom. Therefore, a healthy concern and awareness of snakes is a legitimate concern. Indeed, it was the treatment of a snakebite that inspired the creation of the GOES Health App.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

In 2019, I was called by a hiker who found my information online. He had been treated for a snakebite and discharged home from the hospital, but his symptoms of severe swelling and pain recurred and then deteriorated. Fortunately, I was able to provide specialized care needed to save the hiker’s leg.

While instances like this are a very serious concern, there are many ways we can stay well clear of snakes and reduce our chance of a snakebite. It is important to remember that snakes, too, wish to avoid contact with humans. The majority of envenomations occur during intentional human interaction with a snake or a surprised defensive strike, as opposed to an unseen attack.

To snakes, we are large predators threatening their territory, and they will only bite as a last resort to protect themselves. With the right preparation and caution you can be confident in your ability to travel outdoors through snake country.

A pygmy rattlesnake resting in the shade under some brush

Myths about snakebites

First, there are some common myths about snakebites that need to be dispelled:

Myth #1: More snakebites occur during droughts as snakes are out of their usual habitats looking for food.

False. There are more snakebites in the summer months following a rainier year than a drier year. The predominant thought is that more rain leads to more plant growth, which means more fodder for rodents. More rodents mean more food for snakes, more snakes, and more snakebites.

Myth #2: Clapping your hands and yelling can scare a snake off

False. While snakes do have an inner ear structure, they do not have eardrums, meaning they don’t “hear” in the conventional sense. Snakes instead sense vibrations in the ground. Their inner ears are attached to their jaws, meaning as they slither around, vibrations are picked up and transmitted via these inner ears to the brain. Stamping your feet, therefore, will scare off a snake more readily than yelling, \”go away snake!”

Myth #3: You can suck the venom out of a snakebite

False. The only cure for a venomous snakebite is antivenom at your local emergency department. Sucking, vacuum devices, cutting, electric shock, ice, etc. are all ineffective and even risk causing more damage. Tourniquets should also be avoided for snakebites! The pressure a tourniquet applies to the skin can lead to much worse outcomes and tissue loss.

Myth #4: Smaller snakes lead to more severe envenomation, as the baby snakes cannot regulate the amount of injected venom.

False. The larger the snake, the more severe the envenomation. Baby snakes of venomous species can still give you a serious envenomation, but not any worse than a large snake.

A Rattlesnake Warning Sign in Southern California

Tips to prepare for the risk of snakebites

With these myths dispelled, here are some ways you can prepare for your outing with snakes in mind.

  • Be aware of which venomous snakes might be present where you are adventuring. You can use the World Health Organization’s Venomous snake distribution database for general info about snake species and regions. If you are going to a state or national park, reach out to them for information or talk to a park ranger.
  • If you are in a desert/arid region of North America, listen for rattlesnakes. Remember that they sense your vibrations in the ground and will use their rattle to warn you of their presence. They do not always use their rattle, however, so be careful to always be aware of your surroundings.
  • Don’t adventure alone. As with all types of emergencies, there is safety in numbers. Having someone with you out on a hike means better odds of responding to an emergency effectively.
  • Wear boots and long pants. Open toed shoes such as sandals leave you little protection from a snakebite.
  • Be wary of piles of rocks, brush, shrubs, and undergrowth where a snake could be sheltering. Avoid blindly reaching underneath these areas.
  • Do not attempt to touch a snake, even if it appears dead.
  • If hiking, stay on the designated trails. Snakes are more likely to be sheltering in underbrush and places that offer them more shelter from predators or the heat.
  • Keep tents sealed shut when not in use to avoid snakes taking advantage of the shade.
  • In the unfortunate event of a snakebite, seek medical attention immediately. As stated above, do not attempt to suck on the bite, use a device, or attempt to cut the bite in any way. Use the GOES Health App to use offline-capable assessment tools or for 24/7 live medical expert support.
  • If you have children, be sure to educate them about the dangers of snakebites and how to be cautious. Children are especially vulnerable to severe reactions to snakebites because of their smaller body mass. 

For more information on snakes and snakebites, be sure to use the Plan and Prepare section of the GOES Health App.

With the right knowledge and awareness, you can stay safe, have fun, and avoid snakebites.

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