Outdoor Safety: Snakebite, First Aid Do’s and Don’ts

As a Biology teacher and amateur herpetologist, I have encountered numerous snakes, both in the wild and in captivity, and I always marvel at their beauty and elegant design. The vast majority of the world’s serpents are non-venomous and completely harmless to humans. However, if you live on any continent other than Antarctica, there is a possibility that you may encounter one of the more dangerous species during your outdoor activities. If you follow a few simple rules, you should come away from the encounter with nothing more than a sense of exhilaration at having seen one of nature’s wonders.

If you are bitten, however, your awe-inspiring encounter has now turned into a medical emergency. Snake venom can cause extreme pain, serious tissue damage, and even death, if left untreated. Students and friends frequently ask me what they should do in such a situation. Again, following a few basic guidelines can help ensure that you survive the ordeal, hopefully a little wiser for the experience.

Since an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, let’s talk about how you can avoid being bitten in the first place.

1. Treat ALL snakes as potentially venomous. This means keep your distance! As a general rule, you should keep at least one body length (the snake’s, not yours) away. This keeps you well out of the “strike zone.” For most of the common venomous species, ten to twelve feet should do it. This rule also means that you should never handle a snake, no matter how pretty it looks or how docile it seems. Content yourself with taking pictures.

2. When hiking, step ON, not over obstacles. As you hike, you may encounter large rocks, fallen trees, etc. in your path, and sometimes it is tempting to jump over them. Resist this temptation! A snake could well be sheltering itself on the far side of the obstacle. Stepping on the rock or log gives both you and the snake some warning of approaching danger. Remember, nine times out of ten, the snake will move away to avoid a confrontation if it knows you are coming.

3. Do not run. The faster you are moving, the less time the snake has to react to the vibrations you are generating and move out of your way, so running through the woods is not a good idea. Some people react to seeing a venomous snake (or hearing a rattle) by running in the opposite direction. This is also dangerous. The sound of a rattlesnake is difficult to localize if you can’t see the snake, and you may end up running right toward it. If you see it and run away, you could well find yourself running into the path of another snake! Walk away in a calm manner.

4. Familiarize yourself with the venomous snakes in your area. Forewarned is forearmed. Be aware of any dangerous wildlife in the location where you will be hiking or camping. Know their usual habitats and use caution when exploring such habitats.

Okay, so you’ve followed all the safety advice, and you got bitten anyway. What should you do? The decisions you make now can literally save life and limb. In any snakebite emergency, you should take the following steps:

1. First, remain calm. I know. This is easier said than done, but it is important nonetheless. The more anxious you become, the faster your heart beats, and the faster the venom spreads throughout your body.

2. Call 911. If you have access to a phone, the first thing you should do is call 911. This will shorten the time it takes for you to reach professional medical care. Remember, time is tissue!

3. Wash the wounded area. It’s bad enough that you were envenomated, you don’t want an infection on top of it. Use warm soap and water, if they are available.

4. Remove jewelery and constrictive clothing from the affected area. Swelling will occur rapidly, and you don’t want to compromise blood supply — this will only lead to more tissue destruction.

5. Immobilize the injured area. If necessary, use a loose splint to accomplish this. Moving the affected limb just spreads the venom around faster.

6. Get a picture of he snake, if possible. If you have a camera or a cell phone with a camera, a snapshot will help the ER doctors identify the snake and determine the proper antivenin to administer.

7. Get medical attention as soon as possible. This is an obvious piece of advice, but a crucial one.

Now that you know what to do, here are some things you should NOT do:

1. Don’t try to capture the snake. Do you really want to be bitten a second time?

2. Don’t use a tourniquet. This doesn’t really stop the spread of venom, but it does compromise blood supply to the injured area.

3. Don’t cut the wound, suck the venom, etc. These actions only serve to increase the chance of infection

4. Don’t elevate the injured area. Keeping the bite below the level of the heart will slow the spread of the venom through your system.

Snakebites are rare, and resulting deaths are even rarer, in the developed world. With proper caution, you can enjoy outdoor activities for a lifetime without ever having to face this situation. Knowing what to do, however, can prevent an unpleasant accident from turning into a tragedy.