There are many different beliefs when it comes to treating a venomous snake bite. The problem is when it comes to first aid I don’t want belief, I want accurate information and training on how to treat an injury or try to save a life.
Unfortunately there are many harmful myths that exist around how you treat a venomous snake bite.
Some of these have been around forever and just won’t die. Others exist because of movies, slick marketing, or in one case medical studies that resulting in changing the recommended field first aid.
Read on to make sure you don’t believe one of these potentially fatal treatment myths and to find instructions, resources, and clear details on how to properly treat venomous snake bites.
Important counters to harmful snake bite treatment myths:
- Don’t use a snake bite kit
- Don’t “cut the wound and suck out the poison”
- Don’t use a constriction band or tourniquet
- Don’t kill or capture the snake
- Don’t apply ice on the bite
- Don’t drink alcohol, caffeinated drinks, or ibuprofen/aspirin or other meds
- Don’t delay medical attention
7 Snake Bite Treatment Myths
If you fall for these common snake bite treatment myths, you’re going to be in much worse shape.
Each section tells the proper step, the venomous snake bite myth that it counters, and gets you on the right course to care.
Avoid these, make sure your first aid training is up to par, and take proper precautions and you will be much more likely to come out of the other side of a snake bite healthy and alive.
Don’t Use a Snake Bite Kit
MYTH: A snake bite kit can help save your life by taking some of the venom out of the snake bite wound.
Snake bite kits drive me crazy. Honestly, I don’t understand how these are legal.
While a snake bite kit sounds like a good idea in theory, it doesn’t work. The best case scenario is that it doesn’t make things worse.
But even then, that’s not completely true. Why? Because even if you’re a pro at getting everything out, suction on, and “treatment” you are delaying actual medical care at a facility by likely minutes.
If the snake bite is life threatening, or attacking the body in a way that is causing permanent damage the sooner you get the antivenom, the better.
Any delay can have lasting harmful effects or even lead to death.
The venom goes into the blood stream with a snake bite, and your blood moves through your body so quickly
What are my sources, you ask?
Well here’s a short list:
- University of Arizona: Snake Bite Kits Don’t Work & Delay Emergency Care
- Herpetologist (snake scientist) Jordan Benjamin via Reddit
- Omega Gear’s great YouTube video with Director of Nature Reliance School Craig Caudill
- Annals of Emergency Medicine Study of Suction for a Venomous Snake Bite
- Arizona Republic Newspaper Column: Do Snake Bite Kits Work?
Avoid snake bite kits at all costs. It’s modern snake oil.
Don’t Cut & Suck
MYTH: Cut the snake bite and suck the poison out.
Even 30+ years ago when I was a kid it was pretty widespread knowledge that this was a myth and not the way to treat a snake bite.
But somehow, in some places, this myth still persists. While it might have made for some great TV or movie scenes in old Spaghetti Westerns, that definitely is NOT where you should be drawing first aid advice from.
Do not cut at the wound, do not cut yourself above the wound. You’re only damaging and injuring yourself further.
It doesn’t help, it only makes things worse.
Clean the bite area with water (and soap, if available), and then wrap it in a clean dressing or bandage before getting the bite victim to the nearest clinic or hospital (call ahead via cell phone to let them know the situation, if possible).
Don’t Use a Tourniquet or Constriction Band
MYTH: Using a tourniquet or a tight constriction band above the bite can slow the spread of venom.
This was one that you might not know if you learned your first aid 20 years ago. While never using a tourniquet has been good first aid for 99% of situations for years, when I was back in scouts first aid for a snake bite kit actually did involve putting a constricting band about 2 inches above the bite.
This is NO LONGER the case.
Not only should you not apply a tourniquet, you should not but a constrictive band to restrict blood flow. This more often does a lot more harm than good.
What you should do: Clean the bite area, bandage it with a clean dressing, and remove any clothes, jewelry, or anything in the area that could be constricting in any way, shape, or form.
Don’t Apply Ice
MYTH: Applying ice to a venomous snake bite constricts the swelling and therefore slows envenomation.
This is another one of those myths that seems to pass the “common sense” test and so I don’t blame people who believe this or jump to this conclusion.
But shows a massive misunderstanding of biology and medical treatments in that situation, which is unacceptable.
While the idea of reducing the swelling seems good, the swelling isn’t the problem. That is actually the body’s own defensive responsive to try to localize the problem. The swelling is meant to buy time and prevent the problem (in this case snake venom) from spreading, or at least slow it down.
While this isn’t enough in the far majority of cases, and it’s minimally effective in this case, putting ice on it doesn’t help. In fact, it can do the opposite.
Opening blood flow while venom is i the blood just doesn’t make sense.
Furthermore, the cold can damage the skin in the area which may affect treatment by medical professionals.
Don’t use ice. It doesn’t help in this situation.
Don’t Kill & Capture the Snake
MYTH: You need to kill or capture the snake to help medical professionals identify the right treatment.
There is ONE kernel of truth in this one: being able to ID the snake correctly can speed up treatment. Since so much of treatment for a snake bite is speed of the most efficient antivenin, that does matter.
However, you should NEVER, ever, attack, agitate, grab, or otherwise mess with a venomous snake. Especially one that is already agitated.
If you have a cell phone, take a picture of the snake from a safe distance. If you don’t, look at it from a safe distance. Pay attention to color, pattern, any distinctive features that clearly give away what type of snake it is (rattle, yellow tail, bright white mouth, etc.).
This information is enough to make treatment. Even if you have no idea what the venomous snake is that is responsible for the bite, treatment can still be successful.
Don’t risk further injury or harm by interacting with the snake.
Don’t Delay Medical Attention
MYTH: You should do X first before seeking medical attention OR It was only a copperhead and I’m healthy OR It was probably a dry bite this time of year.
This is one of the most dangerous of all the snake bite treatment myths. The best treatment to a venomous snake bite is the most effective antivenin applied by a doctor or trained medical professional as quickly as possible after the bite.
This myth takes on many specifics but the basics come down to stopping the process of getting to medical help. Advice like calming your heart rate, getting out of the snake’s range, that is all correct. It can also be done while moving.
Panicking? Breathe deeply while walking at a slow steady pace. This lets you get your heart rate down as you move towards rescue (especially if there’s no one there to help you).
Getting out of the snake’s range? Common sense.
NEVER wait for symptoms of pain or damage before getting medical help!
Even a “dry bite” can be incredibly dangerous.
What if you’re allergic? What if you have pain you don’t know about? Snake’s mouths also have huge amounts of bacteria that can cause infections (which can also be deadly).
Even if a copperhead bite doesn’t kill you, it can permanently injure you or your organs.
Why take the chance? Just go get treatment. Anything delaying the goal of getting you safely to treatment is a bad move.
Don’t Have a Drink to Calm Nerves
MYTH: A quick drink to calm nerves can help slow your heart to stop the spread of venom. (This myth also applies to the “take ibuprofen/aspirin/etc.” with over the counter medicine of any kind)
Not alcohol, not soda, tea, coffee, or anything caffeinated. You don’t need calmed nerves, you need medical treatment.
Both alcohol and caffeine have the potential of causing your body’s inner system to ramp up. Meaning you actually absorb more venom and you do it faster.
That is really bad news in the case of a snake bite.
On top of that the sugars from alcohol or caffeine from other drinks can in the short-term cause your heart rate to go up which once again just speeds up the spread of the poisons in your blood and throughout your body.
Finally there’s the fact that antivenin can have a negative reaction in some cases with alcohol in particular, but it can also bring out side effects from a caffeinated system.
The same is true with any over the counter mediations. They can interfere with how the antivenin works in your body or combine with certain drugs to cause side effects.
Make sure to inform the doctor of any medications you took that day. Aspirin, ibuprofen, Aleve, birth control, prescription meds, anything. These can react with certain antivenins and doctors need to be aware of this up front for your treatment to be as safe as possible.
These side effects can be countered, but only if the doctors working on you know about them.
Don’t add anything extra to your system. Drink water and only water if you are experiencing extreme thirst as a symptom.
Bonus Myth Busted: You SHOULD Worry about Non-Venomous Snake Bites
MYTH: Don’t worry about non-venomous snake bites.
There’s an idea that if the snake bite isn’t from a copperhead, coral snake, water moccasin, or rattlesnake (or other venomous snakes for that matter) then you don’t have to worry.
However, non-venomous snake bites or dry bites from venomous snakes can still transfer a lot of bacteria into those open wounds. That can lead to infection and serious health problems as a result.
So while non-venomous snake bites are better than ones from venomous snakes (I know, obvious), you still need to take bites from non-venomous snakes seriously.
Wash the wound, wrap it, and watch for ANY signs of infection at all.
Proper First Aid for a Venomous Snake Bite, Step by Step Treatment
First Aid by definition is just that “first aid” it’s the immediate actions that should be taken to stabilize an injured individual and limit cascading harm before getting the injured person to a medic, a clinic, or a hospital where the full level of tools and training are available for proper full treatment.
- Get a safe distance from the snake.
- Take a picture with any camera or smartphone available to help medical professionals identify the snake.
- Remove jewelry, tight clothing, or anything in the area that could cause constriction.
- Move as little as possible. Ideally you can call emergency services or someone else is there to get a vehicle, make an emergency call, and transport you to help.
- If available, wash the bite area with soap and water and wrap in a clean dressing.
- If you need to get to a place to make an emergency call or drive to help then do so but steadily, working to keep your breathing and heart rate down.
- Keep calm. Breathe deep and steady to keep your heart rate low. If you do need to move, slow and steady to where you can call for help.
- If you have the ability to keep track of your injury or have a marker, mark the “movement” of soreness and swelling and the time as you wait for medical help. This can help show the speed of spread and help with treatment.
If you want to read more about the first aid process for a venomous snake bite check out these resources.
Why Snake Bite Kits Don’t Work YouTube Video
There’s nothing here that’s too complicated. It’s simply trusting medical professionals for information about medicine.
The science doesn’t lie. When you are in a life or death situation, you want to make sure you’re taking the right steps to protect yourself, your friend, your family, whoever is injured.
In the United States death from venomous snake bite is relatively rare. This is in large part because of the robust medical system in place.
If you find yourself ever in a situation where you have been bit by a venomous snake, or need to give treatment, now you know how to avoid the worst mistakes and give proper treatment if this unfortunate event happens.
Avoid these snake bite first aid myths, give proper first aid, and you are much more likely to see a good ending instead of tragedy.
Necessary Important Legal Disclaimer: We’re not medical professionals. We take first aid courses and survival courses, and we look for information from doctors, medical scientists, and organizations we linked to like the CDC and Mayo Clinic. What we give is not medical advice but information. This should be considered informational in nature, not medical advice.