Keep Calm and Don’t Suck the Venom: Snakebite Myths, Dos, and Don’ts

Whether you are a Harry Potter fan, know that one Bible story, or enjoy an occasional hike, you probably share an opinion with the majority of Americans that snakes are bad news. A 2014 poll by YouGov revealed Ophidiophobia (from the Greek ophis – snake1) fears1bto be the No. 1 fear observed in 1000 survey participants2, supporting data gathered from a larger poll by Gallup in 20013. Despite the prevalence of this fear, in humans as well as other primates4, a great deal of misinformation on how to handle a snakebite has crept into pop culture, and thus into our seldom-used mental notebook of survival skills. Here are a few deadly tips that you may be familiar with5:

  1. Make a cut near the bite and apply suction to extract the venom.
  2. Apply ice to the bite in order to slow blood flow and reduce the spread of venom.
  3. Apply a tourniquet to restrict the flow of blood and venom away from the bite.
  4. Retrieve the snake so the EMT will know which antivenom to administer.

Others include waiting for symptoms to appear and consuming alcohol and/or caffeine.

Although these outdated measures are still widely accepted by the general public, they may do more harm than good by delaying prompt medical care, contaminating the wound, or by damaging nerves and blood vessels – R. Barish, MD6

Dr. Barish, quoted above from an interview with WebMD, works with the Rocky Mountain Poison Center in Denver, CO and has compiled research on snakebites, reporting that most bite1occur when inebriated individuals attempt to handle wild snakes. And so, the first preventative measure to be listed here:

  1. Do NOT attempt to handle any snake except under the strict supervision of a trained professional.

Before the rest, a quick clarification inspired by a surprising error from the same WebMD article – can you spot it? – “Of the estimated 120 different types of snakes found in the U.S., about 20 are poisonous.”

Snakes are (almost) never poisonous; they are venomous! Both terms can refer to same toxin, but when the toxin is inhaled, consumed, or absorbed through the skin, it is a poison, while venom is injected into the bloodstream7. More bite-prevention tips were gathered from the CDC website:

  1. Avoid tall grass and piles of leaves, rocks, and wood when possible, and/or wear boots and long pants.
  2. Wear leather gloves and long sleeves when handling debris.

keepcalmIf bitten by a snake, the most important thing to do is remain calm. Of course, that will be difficult after being bitten, but know that depending on the species, between 20 and 80% of all bites from venomous snakes are “dry bites” meaning no venom is actually injected7. Snakes allocate a lot of energy to the production of venom, so dry bites are often used to warn potential predators. Also, according to, “you are about nine times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than from being bitten by a snake in the United States8.” So remember those facts and these other tips provided by the CDC:

  1. Seek medical attention ASAP; call 911 or local emergency services.
  2. Try to recall the physical appearance of the snake, this may help with treatment.
  3. Apply first aid: position the bite below the level of the heart, clean with soap and water, cover it, and apply light pressure.

Keep these things in mind, and you will have little to fear when it comes to snakes!



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