Snakebite First Aid: Wrong and Right
Until the past few years, the recommended first aid for a snakebite was to tourniquet the area above the bite, cut the skin open, suck out the venom and then spit it out. The reasoning behind this was that you could remove much of the venom before it had a chance to enter the victim's bloodstream. However, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002 officially refuted this method [source: O'Connor]. Venom enters the bloodstream extremely quickly, and trying to suck it out is ineffective. The best way for a bite victim to prevent venom from quickly moving through the bloodstream is to remain calm, keep the wound below the heart, and avoid running or doing anything that would increase the heart rate.
Many first aid and snakebite kits contain a suction device for removing venom from a snakebite wound. These devices provide way more suction than your mouth ever could and don't require an incision (which is dangerous and could cause infection). Tip: If your snakebite kit contains instructions for making an incision on the wound, throw it away and buy a more current kit. Also note that the Annals of Emergency Medicine reported in 2004 that these commercially available extractors remove virtually no venom, just blood and other fluids [source: Alberts].
Using a tourniquet can damage nerves and blood flow. True story: In Tennessee, a well-meaning passerby used a tourniquet to help a farmer who'd been bitten by a snake. When the farmer arrived at the hospital, his blood pressure was so low from the tourniquet around his arm that he was only minutes from death [source: UPI]. Another treatment that's fallen out of favor is icing the bite area. Doctors advise against this, as it may cause the venom to stay in one place, which creates worse tissue damage than if the venom had spread out a bit.
Now, here's what you SHOULD do if a snake strikes:
- Keep the snakebite victim calm. Restrict movement and keep the affected area below the heart level to reduce the flow of venom.
- If you have a pump suction device, follow the manufacturer's directions.
- Remove any rings or constricting items from the affected area in case it swells. Create a loose splint to help restrict movement of the area.
- If the bite area begins to swell and change color, the snake was probably venomous.
- Monitor the person's vital signs. If there are signs of shock, lay the person flat, raise the feet about a foot, and cover the person with a blanket.
- Get medical help right away.
- Bring the dead snake to the hospital only if it's safe to do so. Don't waste time hunting for the snake, and don't risk another bite if it's not easy to kill the snake. Be careful -- due to reflex, a snake can actually bite for up to an hour after it's dead.
[source: US NLM]
The best first aid for snakebite is your cell phone. Calling ahead to an area hospital as the victim is on his or her way allows the medical team to prepare antivenin. Antivenin -- sometimes called antivenom -- is the primary way hospitals treat snakebites. It's very effective because the majority of snakebite victims in the United States manage to reach a medical facility within 30 minutes to two hours of being bitten [source: Juckett].
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More Great Links
- Alberts, Michael B. "Suction for venomous snakebite: A study of 'mock venom' extraction in a human model." Annals of Emergency Medicine. February 2004. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://www.annemergmed.com/article/S0196-0644(03)00813-8/abstract
- GORP. "Safe and Sound: Snakebites." 2008. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://gorp.away.com/gorp/publishers/lyonspress/med_out3.htm
- Health Guide. "Snake Bite." New York Times. 2008. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/injury/snake-bite/overview.html
- Johnson, Steve. "Frequently Asked Questions About Venomous Snakes." University of Florida. 2007. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://ufwildlife.ifas.ufl.edu/venomous_snake_faqs.shtml
- Juckett, Gregory, MD, MPH and Hancox, John G., MD. "Venomous Snakebites in the United States: Management Review and Update." American Family Physician. April 1, 2002. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://www.aafp.org/afp/20020401/1367.html
- Kentucky Snake Identification. "How to Identify Snakes." University of Kentucky. 2002. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://www.kentuckysnakes.org/how2.cfm
- Landman, Beth. "Snakes on a Frown." New York Magazine. Sept. 18, 2006. (Aug. 25, 2008).http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/21354/?imw=Y
- Medical Encyclopedia. "Snake Bites." Medline Plus. Feb. 27, 2008. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000031.htm
- Merck Manuals. "Snake Bites." Merck. February 2003. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://www.merck.com/mmhe/sec24/ch298/ch298d.html
- New York Presbyterian Hospital. "Snake Bites." 2008. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://www.nyp.org/health/nontrauma_snake.html
- O'Connor, Anahad. "Really?" New York Times. July 13, 2004. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D04E5DB1E3BF930A25754C0A9629C8B63
- O'Connor, Anahad. "Snakebite Advice is Close to Snake Oil." New York Times. Aug. 1, 2002. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9806EFD61F38F932A3575BC0A9649C8B63
- Popular Science. "Evolution's Most Effective Killer: Venom." March 6, 2008. (Aug. 25, 2008)http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2008-03/evolution%E2%80%99s-most-effective-killer-snake-venom
- Porter, Mike. "Learn to Recognize Venomous Snakes." Noble Foundation Agricultural Division. June 2008. (Aug. 25, 2008) http://www.noble.org/AG/Wildlife/Snakes/index.html
- Reptile Gardens."World's Deadliest Snakes." 2008. (Sep. 8, 2008) http://www.reptilegardens.com/learning-pages/snakes/deadliest-snakes/index.php