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First aid for snakebites

Angie Fletcher, Human Development Specialist, University of Missouri Extension, and Gail Carlson, Health Specialist, University of Missouri Extension

 
Each year, nearly 8,000 people receive poisonous snakebites in the United States. Few animals are more disliked than snakes. Snakebites occur despite precautions. They are typically not fatal to healthy adults but can be to children and older adults.
 

Most first-aid texts do not encourage victims of snakebites to kill the snake because the victim may wind up being bitten a second time. Identifying the snake is not as important as it once was because snakebites normally are treated with crotalid antivenom, which is applicable to all poisonous species in the state of Missouri.
 

Call for emergency assistance immediately if someone has been bitten by a snake. Responding quickly in this type of emergency is crucial.
 

  1. Don’t delay getting care. Call 911 or your medical emergency service and inform them of the snakebite. Report any symptoms, such as sharp pain, bruising, swelling around the bite, weakness, shortness of breath, blurred vision, drowsiness or vomiting. Get the victim to an appropriate medical facility as quickly as possible. While waiting for emergency assistance*:
  2. Keep the individual still and quiet. Splint the affected limb if possible. Do not let the person walk or move around. The less the victim moves the less likely it is the venom will spread through the body and cause damage.
  3. Professionals disagree about the value of suctioning the wound. If it can be done within three minutes of the bite it may be beneficial. It might also be useful if medical treatment is more than 30 minutes away. To suction a wound, use a suction cup or venom extractor. Your pharmacy or hardware store may carry one, or they are also available in snakebite kits; however, the use of a snakebite kit without training is not recommended. Some professionals do not recommend suctioning by mouth, but others indicate suctioning by mouth should be done only in emergencies. Strong suction will be needed. Do not make an incision over the bite; it does more harm than good.
  4. Clean the wound thoroughly with soap and water, rinsing away from the bite to avoid getting venom that may be on the unbroken skin into the wound. A cool or moist compress might help keep the swelling down, but do not apply ice or a cold compress.
  5. Professionals disagree about the value of using a tourniquet to reduce the spread of the venom. If the tourniquet is too tight it can be harmful and may require amputation of the limb. If the individual is unable to receive medical care within 30 minutes, make a tourniquet by cutting a strip about to 1 inches wide out of soft material, like a handkerchief or torn clothing. Wrap the tourniquet 2 to 4 inches above the bite or the swelling. The band should be loose enough that a finger can slip under it. You do not want to cut off blood flow to the affected area. If the tourniquet is too tight, blood flow may be restricted as the swelling spreads. Loosen the tourniquet as necessary and check the pulse below the tourniquet every two to 15 minutes.
  6. Keep the bitten area at or below the level of the heart; this will also slow the spread of the venom.
  7. Remove any rings, bracelets, boots or other tight-fitting articles from the affected limb before swelling begins.
  8. Make sure the victim drinks water or other non-alcoholic, caffeine-free beverages in small amounts to reduce the risk of shock.


*This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment.
 

References:
National Ag Safety Data Base Venomous Snake Bite University of Florida, 2002. http://www.cdc.gov/nasd/.
Pierce, Robert A. Guide Sheet G9450, Snakes: Information for Missouri Homeowners. University of Missouri Extension Publications, 2004. http://muextension.missouri.edu/explore/agguides/wildlife/g09450.htm.
First Aid for Snake Bites. University of Maryland Medical Center, 2004. http://www.umm.edu/non_trauma/snake.htm.
Vickery, D. and Fries, J. Take Care of Yourself. MA: De Capo Press, 2005.

 

 


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Last Updated 05/05/2009