Antivenom, sometimes called antivenin, is the only treatment for venomous snake bites.
It is true that these drugs cannot reverse the damage already done by the venom, but they do stop it in its tracks. How exactly does it work?
You’ll also want to know which snakes are poisonous, how to avoid them, and what to do if you’ve been bitten by one.
A lot has changed in snake safety over the years, and there is plenty of false information out there, so here’s a quick refresher.
Poison or Venom?
Snakes are not poisonous, they are venomous.
A snake’s venom is a group of proteins and enzymes that kill their prey, immobilize them, or help digest them. (And they can all deliver more than one type of venom in a single bite):
In Greek, hemo means blood, which is why this venom affects the blood.
This can cause bleeding, make that bleeding (or the bleeding from the bite) worse by inhibiting the ability to clot (or scab).
Hematoxin can also clot your blood so much that it can no longer flow, sometimes resulting in stroke or heart failure.
Cyto means cell. Venom from this type of snake can digest cells.
It can destroy your flesh to the point that you lose your limb or life.
This venom is commonly used by snakes to digest their prey.
The word neuro means nerve, so this venom affects the nervous system and the brain.
Your body’s most vital functions will be affected, from moving to breathing.
It is usually these toxins that have the fastest effect on the body and can result in death by paralysis of the diaphragm.
These categories are an oversimplification. To take down their most common prey, each snake species has developed a unique chemical mixture.
In fact, even snakes within a species have different venoms.
While none of them were designed to kill humans, they are still capable of doing so.
How Antivenom was First Made?
First produced by Albert Calmette in the 1890s, antivenom is sometimes called antivenin.
He was a student of Louis Pasteur, who developed the “second wave” of vaccines.
Antivenom was created by Calmette after witnessing a disaster in a Vietnamese village.
As a result of flooding, a group of cobras bit forty people, killing four of them.
Calmette’s basic method involved injecting a small amount of snake venom into horses and waiting for them to develop antibodies to the venom.
Antibodies are the immune system’s response to venom and diseases, and they are the basis of vaccines.
Antibodies against venom aren’t produced by humans fast enough to save their lives.
Horses are better adapted to survive snake bites than humans.
Because horses are so large, it would take a large amount of venom to kill them, making the process relatively safe.
Calmette would then collect some of the horse’s blood and separate the antibodies.
These anti-bodies could then be injected into humans, where they would fight off the venom.
How Exactly Do These Antibodies “Fight Off” the Venom?
Venom evolved proteins that hook themselves onto cells and prevent them from interacting properly.
Neurotoxins, for example, have the right shape to hook onto nerves.
It is called binding, and it prevents the nerve from firing messages to other nerves.
If enough nerves are damaged, whole sections of your brain or spinal cord cannot transmit signals.
It’s as if you cut off that part of your body from the rest.
Similarly, venom that targets blood or other cells disables them by hooking onto them.
The antivenom binds to the neurotoxin and changes its shape.
Neurotoxins are like puzzle pieces that do not fit together correctly.
Since it can’t hook onto your nerves anymore, the remaining nerves can still function.
Eventually, your kidneys will remove the now harmless toxins from your body.
However, once the venom has hooked itself onto a cell, most antivenom cannot dislodge it.
Venom damage is usually irreversible.
Modern antivenom is essentially the same as the kind Calmette created, just an immune response from some other animal, given to humans in large doses.
Now that the working part of the anti-body can be distinguished from other proteins produced by the animal, the likelihood of a severe reaction to the antivenom is reduced.
There was a time when using antivenom on horses caused people to develop allergies.
Even those who are allergic to horses can now receive the antivenom, the doctors simply treat the allergic reaction.
The process of creating antivenom still requires a lot of time, equipment, and expertise (including keeping live snakes and other animals), so it is expensive.
CroFab is the only FDA-approved antivenom currently on the market.
American pit vipers are treated with CroFab, while coral snake bites are treated with North American Coral Snake Antivenin (NASCA).
Nasca is no longer in production, as the manufacturer decided it was too expensive to make.
Because there is a limited supply left, it is only used in cases of life-threatening reactions that cannot be treated with other medicine.
In the past five years, only one person has died from coral snake bites. Additionally, work has begun on a new coral snake antivenom patent.
The only thing you need to know about the venomous snake that bit you are whether it is a coral snake (in the continental United States, anyway, assuming it is not a pet or zoo snake).
All others will receive the same treatment.
Are snake bites dangerous?
It may seem obvious, but there are two types of snake bites. One is more serious than the other:
Snake bites that do not release venom are known as dry bites. These are mostly seen on non-venomous snakes.
The bites from venomous animals pose the greatest risk. They are caused by venom transmitted by snake bites.
Poisonous snakes voluntarily emit venom when they bite.
Their venom can be controlled, and 50 to 70% of venomous snake bites result in envenomation or poisoning.
Even a less serious bite from a snake should be treated as a medical emergency – unless you are sure the snake was not venomous.
A venomous snake bite could result in serious injury or, in the worst-case scenario, death if treatment is delayed.
How common are snake bites?
In the U.S., snake bites aren’t very common – and they aren’t usually deadly.
The World Health Organization estimates that between 4.5 and 5.4 million snake bites occur every year, and between 1.8 and 2.7 million of those result in illness.
According to estimates, at least 81,000 to 138,000 people die each year from snake bites.
Yet, all snake bites should be treated as medical emergencies, unless the bite was from a non-venomous snake.
If the bite of a venomous snake is not treated quickly, it could result in death or serious injury.
Who is most at risk of suffering a snake bite?
95% of snake bites occur in tropical or developing countries.
Those who live in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa are particularly vulnerable to snake bites due to the lack of adequate healthcare services and antivenom.
It is also common for snake bites to occur in poor rural communities. Those with specific jobs are also at greater risk, including:
- Agricultural workers.
Most snakes in North America are not venomous. Venomous snakes include the rattlesnake, water moccasin, coral snake, and copperhead.
Varieties of American Venomous Snakes
The continental United States has four main types of venomous snakes. Each of these groups contains many species.
There are more than a dozen venomous rattlesnakes in the US, including both Diamondbacks and Massagaugas.
As a warning, they all have a rattle at the end of their tail.
When you hear the snake but cannot see it, freeze completely and look carefully.
They are unlikely to bite you if you don’t approach them.
There are five species of copperhead snakes, most of which have the famous hourglass pattern on their backs.
They freeze instead of moving away when threatened.
Generally speaking, they only bite if you touch them or get really close to them, but you should still keep a wide berth away from them.
A hiker who steps on a frozen copperhead is likely to be bitten, so keep an eye out.
Cottonmouth is located in table rock mountain, South Carolina
There are only three cottonmouths in the US, the eastern, western, and Florida.
Some varieties are also commonly known as moccasins.
Water snakes are the most aggressive of the four snakes, and can also be found in water.
When intruders approach, they stand their ground and open their mouths, threatening to bite if you get closer.
There is only one kind of snake in the US that is not a pit viper.
You can distinguish a Coral from its lookalike snakes by using this rhyme: “red on black, friend of Jack; red on yellow, kill a fellow.”
All other kinds of snakes, that are endemic to the continental US, are treated by the same antivenom, so all you need to know about your snake is whether it was a coral.
Unless, of course, the snake was found in a zoo or private collection.
Do not waste your time trying to capture or kill the snake that bit you after a snake bite.
Which snakes are venomous?
Venomous snakes fall into two major categories:
Elapids (cobra family)
There are about 300 venomous species of Elapidae, including kraits, mambas, coral snakes and sea snakes.
Their fangs are short, and they strike downward while chewing.
Their venom is primarily neurotoxic, but it can also damage body tissue or blood cells.
Cobra bites can cause paralysis of the heart and lungs, which can cause death quickly.
There are more than 200 species of Viperidae, which includes pit vipers (like rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, or cottonmouths) and Old-World vipers (adders).
Their upper jaw has hollow, venomous fangs attached to movable bones.
When they’re not using their fangs, they fold them back into their mouths.
Where are the world’s 10 most venomous snakes?
The Indo-Pacific islands, Australia, Southern Asia, and Papua New Guinea are known for having the highest concentration of venomous snakes, including all the top ten venomous snakes in the world.
In order of potency, these snakes are:
- Inland Taipan (found in central Australia)
- Eastern Brown Snake (Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia)
- Yellow Bellied Sea Snake (Tropical oceanic waters)
- Peron’s sea snake (Gulf of Siam, Strait of Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Brurma)
- Coastal Taipan (Australia)
- Many banded krait (Mainland China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Burma)
- Black banded sea krait (Malay peninsula, Brunei, Indonesia)
- Black tiger snake (Australia)
- Eastern tiger snake (Australia)
- Beaked sea’s snake (Indo pacific)
How strong is the venom in a snake bite?
To put the potency of the venom these 10 snakes inject when they bite into perspective, scientists calculated the number of deaths that could be caused by an average dose of their venom.
Because of their physiology, levels of aggression and behavior, snakes inject different amounts of venom when they bite.
For example, Black Mambas are known for striking repeatedly and delivering on average 120 mg of venom per bite, despite the fact that only 10 to 15 mg is sufficient to kill humans.
As a result of repeated strikes, the total amount of venom often increases. Their neurotoxic venom is known to be the fastest acting of all snake species.
A black mamba may be one of the most vicious and poisonous snakes in Africa, but the potency of its venom pales in comparison to the top-ranked Inland Taipan.
A typical dose of venom from the Inland Taipan is 110 mg. This dose of its venom would kill 286 humans or 1,085,000 mice.
Since venomous snakes are now widely known, it is imperative to avoid being bitten in the first place.
You have a slim to none chance of surviving if you are bitten by a poisonous snake while you are in a remote wilderness location or without access to modern medical facilities.
A black mamba bite, for instance, has a 100% mortality rate due to suffocation as the venom paralyzes the respiratory muscles.
It is possible to avoid getting bitten by adopting a few strategies. Let’s take a look at them.
How to avoid a Snake Bite?
There is no way to completely predict snake behavior, but you can minimize your chances of being bitten by taking several basic precautions.
Follow these simple guidelines while out romping in the wilderness to avoid getting bitten by venomous animals:
Avoid tall grass
Snakes tend to hang out in grassy areas and underbrush. Stick to the trails, so you can clearly see what you’re stepping on.
Make sure not to step on a sleeping rattlesnake if you have to go off trail.
You can use a stick to probe the ground in front of you if you must venture through tall grass.
There are always exceptions to the rule; a snake could be curled up in the middle of a well-maintained trail.
Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
Snakes can climb
Snakes can slither up trees and bushes, but they’re not squirrels.
Most people never expect to see a snake at eye level, so they are quite vulnerable to aerial attacks.
Keep your wits about you, so you don’t feel that forked tongue on your face.
Check before you stick your hand into a crevasse.
Because snakes are pure evil, they like to hang out in the dark.
Snakes like to hide in holes, hollow logs, or crevasses in rocks.
Check to make sure there isn’t a snake (or another critter) in any dark holes before you put your hand in them.
Zombie snake attack. Imagine you find a dead snake that you want to turn into snakeskin boots.
Right on. However, be careful when picking it up.
Dead snakes still have reflexes and can bite you if you aren’t careful.
I’ve seen a dead snake slither around firsthand. It’s very creepy.
Many snakes are pretty sloth-like during the day.
The way they catch their prey is by keeping completely still.
Therefore, a snake sunning himself may look good and dead, but it may be sleeping with one beady eye open, thinking, “Just try it buddy.”
The enemy’s lair is not a good place to sleep. Snakes are nocturnal creatures, so you want to avoid letting your guard down after sunset.
Don’t camp in snake territory.
Do not sleep near a log or large branch, in tall grass, or near rocky areas.
You should also zip up your tent tightly.
Although snakes have fierce fangs, they do not have opposable thumbs.
Keep your boots inside the tent (most tents have shoe pockets) and zip the tent up again in the morning to prevent snakes from coming in while you’re hiking.
Put on heavy boots and pants.
Be sure to protect your lower extremities if you’re going exploring in the uncivilized wilderness.
A heavy pair of boots and pants will not only protect you from fierce snakes but also from your ankle’s other nemesis-ticks.
Also, you should be aware of what snakes are venomous in your area, so you’ll know their typical habits and behaviors.
Potential Venomous Snake Bite Symptoms
After being bitten by a snake, you may experience any of the following symptoms within seconds:
- pain, intense or moderate
- rapid heartbeat
- low blood pressure
- skin discoloration
- blurred vision
- difficulty breathing
The snake can still bite without delivering any venom- so seek medical attention even if you’re not feeling any symptoms.
We can’t tell for sure what symptoms you’ll experience if you do get venom because snakes have different amounts of venom, and even different types of venom.
You’ll experience different symptoms depending on the type of snake bite you receive.
When you are bitten by a dry snake, you will likely experience swelling and redness around the bite site.
But if you’re bitten by a venomous snake, you’ll have more widespread symptoms, such as:
- Bite marks on your skin. They can be puncture wounds or smaller, less obvious marks.
- Pain that may not be felt for a little while after the bite, but that is sharp, throbbing, burning. There may also be pain along the affected limb, such as in the groin for a bite on the leg or in the armpit for a bite on the arm. But not everyone feels pain. As an example, a coral snake bite can be almost painless at first, but still deadly.
- There is redness, swelling and tissue damage, or complete destruction, in the bite area.
- Symptoms of abnormal blood clotting and bleeding. A severe bleeding can result in a hemorrhage or kidney failure.
- Symptoms include low blood pressure, a faster heart rate, and a weaker pulse.
- Symptoms include nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, anxiety, headaches, dizziness and blurred vision.
- Difficulty breathing, or in serious cases, complete loss of breath.
- Saliva and sweat production increases.
- Numbness or weakness in your face or limbs.
- Anaphylactic shock can result from an allergic reaction to a snake bite.
The symptoms are similar or identical to those listed above, but more severe. There are a few additional symptoms, including:
- Swollen tongue and extreme tightness in the throat make it difficult to speak.
- Paleness may occur in young children.
- Coughing and/or wheezing constantly.
How are snake bites treated?
Seek immediate medical attention. You should call 911 or emergency services as soon as possible, even if the bite isn’t that painful initially.
It should still be treated as if it were potentially life-threatening.
The treatment can be aided by identifying the snake accurately, though it is difficult to do.
You should also take the following steps immediately:
Jewelry or watches should be removed, as they could cut into the skin if swelling occurs.
To slow the spread of venom through the bloodstream, keep the bite area below the heart.
Keep your calm and remain still. Rest in the recovery position by rolling over on your side.
The venom will spread faster through the body if you move around a lot.
Bandage the bite with a clean, dry bandage. Use a pressure immobilization bandage if you can.
The bandage should be tightly wrapped around the bite. Wrap another bandage around the entire limb to immobilize it.
All these precautions are useful, but antivenom is the ultimate treatment for a snake bite.
As soon as possible, administer antivenom to the bite victim.
A doctor can determine which antivenom is best for a particular situation based on the snake’s size, color and shape.
Horses or sheep are immunized with snake venom to create antivenoms.
The serum (watery part of the blood) is then processed because it contains antibodies that can neutralize the effects of the venom.
There are antivenoms that treat bites from a specific type of snake (monospecific antivenoms) and also antivenoms that treat bites from a number of snakes found in a particular geographic region (poly-specific antivenoms).
The antivenom will be given by injection or through an IV (through a needle in the arm), so that it can take effect as quickly as possible.
Despite the possibility of side effects, these methods have proven to be the most effective.
One of those side effects is serum sickness disease, which can manifest four to ten days after receiving antivenom.
You should contact your healthcare provider or doctor if you experience any of these symptoms:
- Joint pain.
- Kidney failure.
- Swollen lymph nodes.
What happens after you’re treated for a snake bite?
In most cases, you’ll need to stay in the hospital for at least 24 hours, so that doctors can monitor your blood pressure and overall health.
If your blood pressure dips below a certain level, you may need IV fluids (through a needle in the arm).
If the bite caused a larger-than-normal loss of blood, a blood transfusion may be necessary.
Since antivenom has potential side effects, you’ll also need to be monitored.
Because of this fact, only trained medical professionals should give antivenom to patients.
The amount of time it takes to completely recover depends on the kind of snake bite.
In most cases, children can recover from a bite from an adder in one to two weeks.
Most adults take more than three weeks, but 25% of patients need anywhere from one to nine months.
Pain and swelling are common, long-lasting effects in the area of the body where the bite occurred.
What shouldn’t you do when treating a snake bite?
Cut the wound. If you watched an old Western, you might have seen a cowboy make an incision above the snakebite to drain the venom.
The chances of causing an infection in the area increase if you do this.
Suck the venom. In movies, we’ve seen people sucking out the venom with their mouths.
It’s good to keep the venom out of your mouth, so it won’t enter your bloodstream.
Apply ice to the wound. Suction devices cannot be used when ice is present since it damages tissue and inhibits removal of venom.
Panic. Try not to freak out if you’ve been bitten.
Keep someone calm who has been bitten if you’re with them.
The more you move and the faster your heart beats, the faster the venom will circulate throughout your body.
Do your best to remain calm and as still as humanly possible.
What to do if you are bitten by a snake?
Remember what the snake looked like
Despite your precautions, if you are bitten by a snake, knowing what bit you will help emergency services provide the right anti-venom and treatment.
You should remember details about the snake such as the color, size, shape, and movement, such as if it had a rattlesnake-like tail.
A specialist can determine the type of snake anti-venom based on these factors and your geographic location.
Protect the person, or yourself
If you or someone else has been bitten by a snake, you should move that person or yourself out of the snake’s reach.
This does not mean that you must run 1,000 m away, just far enough away that you can feel safe from further snake bites.
Next, the person should lie down with the wound below the heart. If the bite was in the leg, make sure the heart is higher than the leg.
Circulation in that area will be slowed. Stay calm or try to calm yourself or the person down.
When a snake bite occurs, there is a lot of adrenaline released, but this will slow the spread of venom.
Remove the shoes if the leg has been bitten, as they can cause swelling and cause compression.
Wrapping the area
If bitten, it is best to wrap the bite area with a conforming bandage to reduce the ability of the circulatory system to move the venom around the body and go to the nearest medical facility.
This wrapping doesn’t need to be as tight as a tourniquet, but it will hopefully reduce and slow the effects of the venom until you can reach help.
Do not do these things
Don’t cut the snake bite wound, don’t suck the venom out, don’t apply a tourniquet, and don’t use alcohol or caffeine.
Don’t do what you’ve seen in a Hollywood movie.
Getting medical attention
When bitten, your first priority should be to rush to a hospital or medical facility, however, if you’re in a survival situation or in a remote location, that might not be feasible.
In those cases, having a means of contacting help or a person to assist you is essential.
How can you prevent a snake bite from happening?
You may or may not have a hard time avoiding snakes, depending on where you live (or decide to vacation). You can avoid getting bitten by snakes if you’re going to be in snake territory by following these tips:
- Be careful where you put your hands and feet. Ensure a snake isn’t hiding beneath an object before reaching into unknown spaces and holes.
- You shouldn’t sit or lie down in snake-infested areas.
- When walking through dense vegetation or working there, wear high-top leather boots.
- Venomous snakes should not be captured, handled or kept.
- Take extra precautions around swamps and other snake habitats if you’re going camping.
- When you come across a snake, slowly back away from it and avoid touching it.
How to survive a Snake Bite?
A lot of false information is out there on how to survive a snake bite, mainly because studies have revealed new best practices over time.
Snake safety information is likely to change again, so be careful where you get your advice and insist those giving it be transparent about where they got it from.
The general goal of surviving a snake bite is twofold.
The first thing you should do is seek medical attention immediately.
Second: prevent the venom from taking effect while help is on the way or while an ambulance is being called.
There is a difference between preventing the venom from taking effect and “stopping the spread” of venom.
It’s actually not good to completely stop the spread of venom, since it’ll be more potent and will affect that area faster, possibly disfiguring or damaging that limb irreparably.
Therefore, you should never apply a tourniquet to a snake bite.
Rather, you should apply a light compression bandage roughly four inches above the wound (closer to the heart), as if you were wrapping a sprained ankle.
Thus, the venom is prevented from spreading quickly within the specific muscles that were bitten, giving the venom time to dilute and, consequently, giving you more time to get antivenom.
It’s also important to note that New York Search and Rescue advises wrapping snake bites directly with gauze.
In America, this practice is controversial, while it is common in Australia.
A wide gauze bandage wrapped tightly and taped down is not a tourniquet.
You can also prevent the venom from taking effect by staying calm and lowering your heart rate.
You should walk to get medical attention, but if you have a working cellphone, you should call 911, or get driven to a hospital.
Don’t drive yourself, you might faint.
You should use a loose splint to keep the limb as still as possible while being transported to the hospital (not above or below heart level).
If you were wearing jewelry near the bite, take it off before putting on the splint.
You’ll swell up, and the jewelry will be uncomfortable.
If you may have to walk, then do not take off your shoes. Most likely, you won’t be able to put it back on.
Second, seek medical attention if you’ve been bitten by a snake. We self-sufficient preppers dislike calling an ambulance.
However, even if you have an antivenom on hand, you should go to the hospital (after someone administers the first dose).
Antivenom can cause allergic reactions in some people.
You might need a lot more antivenom than you have on hand, perhaps twenty or more doses.
The venom can also cause complications, such as one unfortunate man who suffered a heart attack after being bitten by a snake.
From the bite itself, there are plenty of complicating factors, so seek medical help when it is available.
Things get rough when medical help is unavailable. The methods outlined above should be followed to prevent the venom from taking effect.
Hopefully, you stocked up on antivenom before SHTF, and you have someone who can give it to you, and keep giving it to you.
There is always the possibility that the snake did not give you enough venom to kill you, and that’s really all you can hope for in this situation.
Should you have a snake bite pump in your kit?
A snake bite kit is quite simple, and for the most part, a normal first aid kit with sterilization pads and bandages will be sufficient.
A pump for extraction can also be included.
A study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine in 2004 showed that venom extraction using a suction pump (the Sawyer Extractor Pump was used in the study) removed only 0.04% of the venom from simulated snake bites.
Although there may be some value in them for less venomous snakes, anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise.
It is based on observations of North American species such as rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, which are not as venomous or dangerous as their Pacific relatives.
Anti-venoms are not readily available to the public, are prohibitively expensive, and are administered by injection, which requires medical training.
Final Word – What Can you Really Do?
For snake preparedness, the best strategy is to know where to look for snakes, take appropriate precautions, and never approach them.
In this very interesting list of snake deaths in the United States, you’ll see that most people who die from snakes in the modern era were either handling them or bitten while hiking and were affected by their venom too quickly to get help.
Preppers know having a supply of CroFab on hand in case medical help isn’t available is essential.
Currently, it is not FDA approved, so there is no easy way to procure it.
However, most local clinics and hospitals keep it on hand.
If you live in an area where snakes are common and the local government has fallen apart, this is the ultimate “worst case” SHTF scenario.
Most over-the-counter “snake bite kits” are not to be trusted. Most employ the “suction method,” which is generally inadequate for removing the bulk of the venom (and may actually aggravate the wound site).
When SHTF, you may not have the luxury of “options”.
When medical treatment is not realistic (and/or CroFab is unavailable), something like the Sawyer Extractor Pump may be your only option.
Your best chance of surviving may lie in prevention.
- Get a good pair of high boots (cowboy boots or similar).
- Get snake repellent.
- And have a first aid kit.
If you enjoyed this article, you can leave a comment below!
Hi, I’m the Founder and Developer of Paramedics World, a blog truly devoted to Paramedics. I am a Medical Lab Tech, a Web Developer and Bibliophiliac. My greatest hobby is to teach and motivate other peoples to do whatever they wanna do in life.