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Snakebite: Characteristics, Causes & Treatment

Snakebite
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The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that there are around 7,000 to 8,000 people in the United States that suffer from a snakebite every year, out of which about five people die. The estimated death rates are higher if people don’t seek medical emergency care after a bite (x).

The World Health Organization regarded snake bite as one of the top 20 tropical diseases that is neglected in the world, joining the class of leprosy, rabies, dengue fever and other diseases (x).

What is a Snakebite?

A snake bite occurs when a snake uses its salivary glands to inject venom into a person’s body. During this process, the venom starts to pass from the venomous gland of the snake through the duct and then into the fangs, which is used to bite the prey. Not all bites cause envenomation as the snake can regulate when to release venom and in what amount. A dry bite is when no venom is injected. It is estimated that around 25 to 50 percent of the bites are not venomous (x).

Snakebites are quite common in rural, agricultural and tropical regions. In these areas, many people have experienced multiple snakebites and only a few deaths occur each year.

Types of Venomous Snakes in the United States

There are four types of venomous snakes prevalent in the U.S. — copperheads, rattlesnakes, coral snakes and cottonmouths.

Rattlesnake

The largest type of snake found in the United States; these bites are increasing in number. The good thing about rattlesnakes is that they alert before striking you. If you happen to notice a hiss or a rattle, you may well be in the territory of a rattlesnake (x).

There are almost 29 different species of this type of snake found in the country, from the meadows to the mountains and in the swamps. These snakes can live at elevated levels as high as 11,000 meters. Rattlesnakes are most commonly found in New Mexico, California and Arizona (x).

Most of the time, a rattlesnake only bites when you accidentally step on one. It is important to watch where you walk, especially when you are out exercising. It’s better to keep headphones off so you can stay alert when you hear them hiss or rattle.

Be aware of the area you are in. If you are in the wilderness or on a hiking trail, you are in the snake’s territory. Keep an eye out and respect nature.

Copperhead

This type of snake is medium in size and around 2 to 3 feet in length. The copperhead is by far the most common type of snake in the United States.

‘Copperhead’ is a term given because of their copper-colored red head. These snakes have a light tan or salmon-colored skin with crisscrossed dark markings that are similar to a dumbbell or an hourglass (x).

Similar to the rattlesnake, copperheads also shake their tail before striking. But since they do not have a ‘rattle’ it is harder to know. Copperheads release a strong smell when triggered. During the summer time, these snakes become almost nocturnal. In spring, though, they spend the day out basking in the sun looking for a prey.

Copperheads bite people more than any other species of snake in the United States. Fortunately, copperhead venom is the mildest, though it still requires medical attention in an emergency. These snakes stand their ground, so if you encounter one, calmly back away and do not try to intimidate it (x).

Cottonmouth/Water Moccasin

Water moccasins (or cottonmouths) are at home both offshore and onshore. These snakes are found very commonly in the southeastern part of the United States. Cottonmouth snakes love lakes, streams, marshes, swamps and freshwater ponds.

Cottonmouth snakes spend their time offshore to soak up the warmth of the sun. They can be found hanging out on logs, stones and even hanging down from trees for this purpose. These snakes swim close to the top of the water and are usually found hunting in the dark (x).

The venom in cottonmouth snakes is particularly deadly because it prevents the blood from clotting, which can result in the hemorrhaging of the circulatory system (x).

Seek medical treatment immediately if you are bitten by one.

Coral Snakes

Coral snakes are colorful and small in size. These snakes have the strongest and most deadly venom of snakes in the United States. They are considered second to the black mamba, which is regarded as one of the deadliest venomous snakes on the planet. Coral snakes are about 18 to 20 inches long in size, with a slender and pencil-like structure (x).

The venom of this snake is a neurotoxin, which can cause cardiac failure, respiratory failure and even paralysis. Because of their bright color and small size, these snakes appeal young children. It is important for you to teach your child to never go near a snake without the supervision of an adult (x).

Snakebite Characteristics

The symptoms of snakebites depend on the type of snake that bit you, whether or not the venom is deadly and also on the physical health of the victim. It is similar to a bee sting; in some people, it is not an issue and tends to heal on its own. For others, it can be more extreme. This is generally the case in north America. However, if you are overseas or travelling in areas where venomous snakes are more common, you should seek medical attention if you are bitten by a snake, regardless of whether you feel an immediate effect.

Rattlesnake

The venom of this snake contains neurotoxins that are capable of attacking the nervous system. Some common symptoms of this bite can be low blood pressure, thirst, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, severe pain in the body, fatigue, muscle weakness, difficulty breathing, respiratory failure and difficulty speaking.

Vomiting blood, chest pain and feeling a metallic taste are also other symptoms. If treated on time, the fatality rate can be very low and the symptoms can change rapidly (x).

Water Moccasins/Cottonmouths

Common symptoms of a snakebite of this type include changes in skin color, low blood pressure, weakness, severe and immediate pain.

Copperheads

Like the symptoms of the water moccasin bite, victims experience immediate pain, change in skin color, shock, weakness and low blood pressure.

Coral Snake

The symptoms of a snakebite from a coral snake can be delayed for almost 18 hours. This is why it is important to seek medical attention. The neurotoxins present in the venom can cause difficulty breathing, muscle weakness, stomach pain, twitching of the tongue, sudden shock, blurred vision, paralysis, respiratory failure, headache, abnormal mental state, inability to move eyelids and convulsions (x).

Snakebite Characteristics

Snakebite Risk Factors

There are several situational risk factors which increase the likelihood of a snakebite. People with occupations like construction workers, landscapers, roofers, mechanics, painters, groundskeepers and farmers are all at risk of encountering snakes (x).

Hikers and bikers who don’t stay aware of their surroundings are also at risk. Walking through floodwaters after a natural calamity is dangerous as snakes often seek refuge inside garages and homes to avoid rising waters in these circumstances.

Snakebites are generally avoidable. Look where you are going and don’t take risks in hot weather or high-risk times of year. Educate your children, and yourself.

Natural Ways to Treat Snakebites

It is vital to point out that these are not medical treatments. Seek immediate medical assistance for an antivenom and treatment of a snakebite. Failure to do so can result in death. Once you gave received medical attention, you may want to supplement your healing process with these natural remedies.

Tea Tree Oil

It is important to clean the affected area after a bite, use an antibacterial that contains tea tree oil. After cleaning properly and applying an antibacterial ointment, wrap with a clean bandage. Make sure to not wrap too tightly as you do not want to increase the blood flow. Sometimes it is instructed not to cleanse the affected area, depending on the bite (x).

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil fights off bacteria, viruses and parasites. It has also been proven to assist in wound healing. Apply a small amount of coconut oil onto the affected area topically and wrap with a bandage for a speedy recovery. According to a study published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Physiology, when coconut oil was applied topically, wounds healed more rapidly than the other groups involved in the study (x).

Lavender Essential Oil

The onset of anxiety and stress is pretty common after a snakebite. It is imperative to stay calm after one gets bitten by a snake as the increase in heart rate due to stress and panic can make the toxins spread in the body rapidly. To ease the anxiety, use a few drops of lavender oil topically behind the ears or just sniff from a bottle for instant mental relief.

Echinacea

Echinacea is a good anti-inflammatory pain killer that gives the immune system a boost. It is good for fighting off infections and recovery of a wound. It boosts the immune system by reducing the regulatory T cell numbers and their functioning. However, before taking echinacea supplements, consult with your doctor if you have already been prescribed with medications for a snakebite as the two can interact with each other and cause a reaction. Follow the given guidelines and make sure to purchase only high-quality supplements (x). Take 450 mg a day or as directed by your doctor.

Turmeric

After a snakebite, the skin absorbs toxins and it is normal to feel pain, inflammation and other side effects for the next few days, weeks and even months. Adding turmeric to your diet in the form of turmeric supplements can reduce inflammation and help ease the pain to a great extent. If your bite was from a venomous snake, then it is better to consult with your doctor as a venomous bite can affect the coagulation of the blood greatly, which can lead to various other complications (x). You can add turmeric to your diet as a supplement in a variety of ways. Take up to 1,000 mg once a day.

Precautions Against Snakebite

A bite from a venomous or non-venomous snake can cause persistent health issues and even turn out to be fatal. It is vitally important to seek medical treatment immediately to avoid any complications.

If you are bitten by a snake:

  • Keep calm — this is particularly important as an increase in heart rate can speed up the delivery of the venom
  • Move calmly away from the snake to avoid being bitten again
  • Call for medical assistance immediately
  • Remove jewelry or tight clothing before swelling starts
  • Keep the affected area below or at the level of the heart
  • Clean the wound gently, do not flush with water
  • Do not apply heat
  • Do not apply ice
  • Avoid using a tourniquet
  • Do not take any allergy or pain medication
  • Apply a clean and sanitized bandage
  • Do not try to cut the wound in order to remove the venom from the body
  • Do not attempt to capture the snake as it is very dangerous — take a picture to make a note of the markings, color and the shape of the snake

The Bottom Line

Snakebites are likely to occur when a person enters a snake’s home territory and they feel under attack. They are more likely to bite you if you happen to step on them or cause any kind of disturbance.

The four most common types of snakebites in the U.S. include those of copperheads, rattlesnakes, water moccasins and the coral snake. The treatment of a snakebite depends on the type of snake that bites and the sort of venom it contains. When bitten by a snake, it is important to remain calm and seek medical treatment immediately. Natural remedies can help in managing the symptoms after a snakebite and aid in healing the wound. However, medication is also important depending on the type of a snakebite.

About the author

Mahnum Shakoor


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