Did you know there are over 50 varieties of snakes in the US? Of those, about 21 are poisonous enough to harm humans. Snakes will avoid human contact whenever possible, but if caught unaware, they can strike without warning.
You can stay safe and confident by maintaining awareness in the outdoors and understanding ways that a snake encounter can avoid ending in a snakebite.
In case of a snakebite, evacuate immediately, as the onset of envenomation may be rapid, or delayed for a number of hours.
Symptoms and Description
There are two types of poisonous snakes commonly encountered in the United States are pit vipers (e.g. rattlesnakes, water moccasins, copperheads) and coral snakes. Most bites and injuries are from the family of vipers.
Snakes can strike a distance less than their body length, but have a very fast strike at 9 feet per second! Always give them plenty of room.
Snakes don’t have ears, but they do sense vibration through the ground. Stamping your feet can help scare them off.
Approximately 25% of pit viper bites are “dry bites,” that do not result in envenomation. However, as symptoms may be delayed for more than 8 hours, all snakebites should be evacuated for observation for at least 8 to 12 hours in a hospital. Once symptoms begin, they can rapidly progress in severity, so it is important to be in a place where antivenom can be quickly administered.
Getting the victim of a snakebite to a hospital quickly is one of the most important decisions you can make in the outdoors. Walking the person out on their own (even at the risk of increasing circulation of the venom) may be the quickest way to get them to a hospital.
- Severe burning pain at the bite site
- Usually 2 puncture wounds
- Swelling and bruising around the bite area that spreads towards the center of the body
- Difficulty breathing, weakness, numbness, slurred speech and/or collapse.
- Collapse and death within minutes of a snakebite is very rare, and usually due to anaphylaxis allergic reaction rather than the effect of the snake venom.
Defining Your Risk Category
Your risk of poisonous snakebites depends largely on your location, season, and time of day. Look for signage and consult local park/trail authorities to find out what snakes may be active in your area.
- Dry land, shrubs, and grasses are more likely to have snakes.
- Snakes are most active during the later morning when it warms up or early evening. They often are found in shade during the hottest parts of the day.
- Snakes are most active between 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Snakes become more active in the late spring and summer months.
Guidelines for Safe Travel
Snakes will avoid human contact whenever possible. Be aware of where snakes may be hiding or nesting and stay smart!
- Do not blindly reach under logs or rocks.
- Use caution in dry grass, shrubs, or canyons where snakes may be sunning on ledges.
- Make noise with your feet while walking to scare off snakes.
- Keep a close eye on the trail while hiking. Many snakes are quite good at blending into their surroundings using natural camouflage.
- If you are in an area with rattlesnakes, familiarize yourself with the sound of their rattle and heed their warning!
- Keep in mind that young snakes can be just as poisonous as full-grown adults, while usually the larger snakes result in more severe envenomation, be cautious regardless of the size.
- Keep a close eye on children in areas where snakes may be present.
- Keep tents sealed shut when not in use to avoid snakes taking advantage of the shade.
Snake envenomation typically results in burning pain at the site of the bite, swelling and bruising from local tissue destruction, and can also cause whole body reactions like nausea, vomiting, bleeding, numbness, difficulty breathing, or passing out. The only effective treatment is antivenom, this reduces the venom’s effects and minimizes tissue damage. Antivenom is given by medical professionals, usually in a hospital, with observation to ensure there are no delayed or worsening envenomation. As there may be a delay after the initial snakebite and envenomation, all snakebites should be evacuated for medical observation.
- Do not panic.
- Remove constricting rings, bracelets, jewelry, or clothes on the bitten extremity.
- Avoid further bites. Most snakebites are defensive strikes, so keep a distance of at least 2 body lengths.
- Do not attempt to capture the snake as that may result in an additional snakebite victim.
- Do not place a tourniquet. This could cause further tissue damage to the underlying skin and muscle already made fragile from the destructive snake venom.
- Place a sling or splint to immobilize the extremity if not using that extremity to self- evacuate.
- Do not place ice on a snakebite wound.
- Do not attempt to cut, suck out the venom, or apply a venom extractor pump. They do not actually help and can cause skin damage.
- Evacuate immediately
- Observe the bite for at least 8 hours for signs of envenomation, ideally in a hospital.
- If envenomation is confirmed, observe for at least 12-24 hours for signs of worsening condition, ideally in a hospital.
Have you or a companion been bitten by a snake?
If yes, see medical assessment below.
Emergency Red Flags
All snakebites should be evacuated immediately and observed for at least 8 hours, ideally in a hospital.
- Any snakebite with signs of bruising, swelling, increasing pain, or bleeding.
- Any symptoms of shortness of breath, spreading numbness, difficulty speaking, difficulty swallowing, drooling, or collapse after a snakebite.
If yes, see medical assessment below.
Are you concerned about a snakebite?
Download GOES to launch a digital medical assessment or speak with a wilderness medicine physician.