Venomous Snakebites & First Aide Treatment

Venomous snakebites, although uncommon, are a potentially deadly emergency in the United States and to a lesser extent in Canada.

Western diamondback rattlesnake (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Western diamondback rattlesnake (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The United States has about 20 species of venomous snakes which include 16 species of rattlesnakes, two species of coral snakes, one species of cottonmouth/water moccasin, and one species of copperhead.

Venomous snakes are distributed unevenly throughout the United States — the vast majority of snake bites occur in southern states. Florida and Texas have a wide variety and large population of venomous snakes.

At least one species of venomous snake is found in every state except Alaska and Hawaii.

The chances of dying from a venomous snakebite in the United States and Canada is nearly zero due to the availability of high-quality medical care.

Fewer than one in 37,500 people receive venomous bites in the U.S. each year (7,000 to 8,000 bites per year), and only one in 50 million people will die from snakebite (five to six fatalities per year). In fact, you are nine times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die of venomous snakebite.

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Because of their widespread distribution and relatively potent venom, rattlesnakes are responsible for the majority of fatalities from snakebites; western and eastern species of diamondback rattlesnakes and prairie rattlesnakes account for almost 95 percent of these deaths.  Generally not aggressive, rattlesnakes strike when threatened or deliberately provoked, but given room they will retreat.

Copperhead snakes, which are common in the eastern United States, account for more cases of venomous snake bite than any other North American species; however, their venom is the least toxic so their bite is rarely fatal.

Canada has four species of venomous snakes.

Found in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, the prairie rattlesnake prefer short-grass prairie and dry, open scrubland. If disturbed, they will defend themselves by coiling, vibrating their rattle, and striking.

The northern pacific rattlesnake is found in short-grass prairie and arid interior British Columbia.

Primarily limited to the Georgian Bay area of Ontario, Massasaugas are commonly found near water. Not an aggressive snake by nature, they will often remain motionless if someone walks by. However, they will coil and can strike if they feel threatened.

Limited to a small portion of southern British Columbia, the desert night snake like hot, dry areas and, as their name suggests, are active mainly at night and are therefore seldom seen. Their saliva is slightly toxic.

Prairie rattlesnake (Credit: NPS/Peaco)

Prairie rattlesnake (Credit: NPS/Peaco)

What to do in the event of a snake bite

All venomous snake bites require medical attention.

In recent years, first aid measures for snakebites have been revised to exclude methods that were found to worsen a patient’s condition, such as tight (arterial) tourniquets, aggressive wound incisions, and ice.

The first thing to do if bitten is to stay calm and avoid excessive activity. Immobilize affected area keeping the bite area below the heart. Wash the bite area gently with soap and water and remove watches, rings, etc, which may constrict swelling.

Call 911. If Emergency Medical Personnel are not readily available, transport the victim to the nearest medical facility as soon as possible, but stay calm. Frantic, high-speed driving places the victim at greater risk of an accident and increased heart rate.

DO NOT use ice to cool the bite.

DO NOT cut open the wound and try to suck out the venom.

DO NOT use a tourniquet on the victim.

Worth Pondering…

A rattlesnake loose in the living room tends to end all discussion of animal rights.

—Lance Morrow

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