Copperhead snakes are a venomous pit viper encountered in the United States. They can be found across most of the eastern states, from Texas to Florida, and as far north as New York. Copperheads are responsible for more snake bites in America than any other venomous snake.
Copperhead snakes bite up to 8000 Americans every year. Deaths from copperhead bites are very rare. You’re only likely to die if you have a severe anaphylactic reaction and don’t go to a hospital. Copperhead venom is the least potent of any venomous snake in the U.S.
We will be looking at how potent copperhead venom is, and what symptoms you might experience if a copperhead snake bites you. You’ll find out if copperheads can kill humans, and how often it happens. We’ll then explain what you should do if a copperhead bites you.
How Common Are Copperhead Bites?
Around 7,000 – 8,000 people each year are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States.
This sounds like a lot, but it’s not when you consider that the population of the U.S. is around 326 million. Copperheads will only bite humans if they perceive us as a threat.
Of all the venomous snakes in the U.S., the copperhead is responsible for the most bites. This is mostly due to their abundance. They are one of the most common venomous snakes in the eastern half of the country, present in 28 states.
Copperheads are also good at camouflaging themselves. They aren’t swift, so they rely on their camouflage for protection. Their light brown coloration with coppery bands fits in well on the forest floor. Here’s some information on how to identify a copperhead snake.
Copperheads aren’t aggressive. If they see you coming, they will:
- Try to get as far away from you as possible.
- They’ll stay very still, hoping you won’t see them.
Usually, copperhead bites occur when people try to pick the snake up or try to harm the snake. This is particularly likely when the person is inebriated.
However, bites can also happen when you step on (or too close to) the snake by accident because a pile of leaves disguises them.
Where Will I Encounter Copperhead Snakes?
Copperheads are common in the eastern half of the United States. They can be found as far west as Texas, and as far east as Florida.
Their range extends as far north as upstate New York in the east, and Iowa in the west.
The habitat of a copperhead snake can vary greatly. They can be found in forests and woody areas, fields, rocky areas, swamps and marshes, and even in human habitats.
Copperheads can show up on farms and in barns, and even in back yards. Woodpiles are one of the copperhead’s favorite places to hide.
Like all pit vipers, copperheads are distinguished by their triangular-shaped heads, slit pupils, and thick bodies. They have coppery hourglass-shaped bands along their bodies. Juveniles have bright yellow-green tails.
How Potent Is Copperhead Venom?
To figure out how potent snake venom is, scientists use a term called ‘LD50’. This means the ‘median lethal dose.’
To figure it out, a scientist takes a group of mice and injects them with venom. The LD50 is the amount of venom which, when injected, about half of the mice die.
The lower the number, the more potent the venom is. The metric scientists use is mg/kg, or milligrams of venom per kilogram of body weight.
LD50 can be tested in multiple ways, but the most relevant is subcutaneously (under the skin). It’s a useful way of comparing the strength of one snake’s venom with another snake’s venom.
There are roughly 20 different species of venomous snake in the United States. The most potent venom belongs to the Eastern coral snake. It has a subcutaneous LD50 of 1.3.
The Timber rattlesnake, one of the most common rattlesnakes in the country, has a subcutaneous LD50 of 3.1 So, the Eastern coral snake’s venom is about 2.4 times as powerful.
Copperhead snakes, on the other hand, have a subcutaneous LD50 of 25.6. This is much weaker. The timber rattlesnake’s venom is 8.3 times as powerful; the coral snakes is 19.7 times as powerful.
Copperhead venom is the weakest of all venomous snakes in the United States. However, that’s not to say you won’t experience some pretty unpleasant symptoms if you’re bitten.
What Are the Symptoms of a Copperhead Bite?
Copperhead snakes are some of the more slow-moving snakes. They are ambush predators, lying still most of the time and waiting for prey animals to cross their path.
That being said, they can strike quite fast when confronted by a potential predator. If they see a large mammal coming towards them or interfering with them, they’ll assume you’re bad news.
A common myth is that snakes have to be coiled up with their head raised off the ground to strike. This is not true. Copperheads can strike from any position if they feel that danger is imminent.
When a copperhead bites you, you’ll experience the following symptoms:
- Two puncture wounds, caused by the copperhead’s 7mm fangs. They might not start bleeding straight away, but will eventually bleed copiously.
- Pain where the snake bit you. If the snake injected venom, the pain would also begin to radiate outwards from the wound. It will spread as the venom spreads. You may also experience tingling and throbbing.
- Discoloration of the skin which looks like bruising (ecchymosis). It’s the result of damage to blood vessels underneath the skin.
- Swelling of the bitten limb (edema).
- A red rash around the bite (erythema).
- Nausea, which may be severe.
- Symptoms of shock: a rapid pulse, fast breathing, sweating, weakness, and dizziness.
If you don’t receive medical attention, necrosis (tissue death) can eventually occur. Rarely, you may even need to have your limb amputated.
Symptoms of Anaphylactic Shock
Just as some people can be allergic to bee and wasp stings, the same can apply to snake venom. Some people also go into anaphylactic shock when bitten by venomous snakes, including copperheads.
Anaphylaxis is caused by an extreme immune reaction to a foreign object in the body. If you’re allergic to snake venom, your immune system will go into overdrive when it detects it. Ironically, this extreme reaction can actually cause death if untreated.
Symptoms of anaphylactic shock include:
- Urticaria (hives)
- Hypotension (low blood pressure)
- Bronchospasm (tightness of the airway, making it difficult to breathe)
- Pruritus (intense itchiness)
You are most likely to experience anaphylactic shock from a copperhead bite if a snake has already bitten you at some point in your life.
Can a Copperhead Kill a Human?
Though it’s rare for copperheads to kill humans, it can happen.
Their venom may be the least potent of any U.S. venomous snake, but it’s still venom. It poisons and attacks the body from the inside, causing damage which can be severe.
This isn’t to say that everyone who gets bitten by a copperhead will die – far from it. According to the University of Florida, only 1 in 50 million venomous snake bites result in death, and very few of these deaths are from copperheads.
So, why do some people die from copperhead bites, but not others?
- People with pre-existing medical conditions are more likely to die from copperhead bites than healthy individuals. For example, in 2012, a 50-year-old man died when copperhead venom aggravated an undiagnosed heart condition.
- Older adults tend to be more susceptible than younger people. Their immune systems tend to be weaker, and their bodies generally frailer.
- Some people develop anaphylactic reactions to snake venom. This can be very dangerous. Unfortunately, you won’t know if you are allergic until you get bitten.
If you get to a hospital quick enough, death is unlikely.
How Often Do Copperheads Kill Humans?
It’s unusual to get bitten by a copperhead, providing you see the snake before you get too close.
Though they bite more people than any other venomous snake, snake bites, in general, are still infrequent. The chance of being bitten by a venomous snake in the U.S. is less than 1 in 37,500.
Even if you do get bitten, copperhead bites are very rarely fatal. They have the least potent venom of any U.S. venomous snake. If you make it to a hospital within an hour, you will most likely be fine.
Not to mention, copperheads often deliver a dry bite first, as a warning. Dry bites don’t inject any venom. Around one-fourth of all pit viper bites are dry.
Only 5 to 6 people per year die from snakebite in the US. Copperheads account for only a tiny percentage of those deaths. The last time someone died of a copperhead bite was in 2014. The snake bit the man when he picked it up.
Can a Copperhead Kill a Child?
Venomous snakes don’t adjust how much venom they inject based on how significant the threat is. A child will receive the same dose as an adult.
The more venom there is in your bodily tissues, the worse the effects will be. As children are smaller than adults, they are more at risk of severe complications and death. The younger the child, the higher the risk.
Fortunately, children are very rarely bitten in the first place. Most snake bites occur in males between the ages of 16 and 27 years of age, according to the Journal of Clinical Medicine.
At the time of writing, the last time a child died from a copperhead bite in the U.S. was in 1976. That’s over 40 years ago. So, you can understand how rare it is.
Can a Copperhead Kill a Pet?
The likelihood of your cat or dog dying from a snakebite is much higher than a human dying. Not only are cats and dogs much smaller than humans, but pets aren’t able to talk.
Your dog can’t tell you that it’s been bitten by a snake. Unless you witness the attack, you might not know what’s happened until it’s too late. The fang marks may be hidden under fur.
Fortunately, a copperhead bite is not always a death sentence for our furry friends. If you take your pet to an emergency veterinarian as soon as possible, there’s a strong chance your pet will live.
Some dogs recover without medical intervention, though we wouldn’t recommend testing this out.
How Fast Will a Copperhead Bite Kill You?
When you’re bitten by a copperhead, you’ll start to notice the effects of the venom quite quickly.
The first symptom, pain at the site of the bite, will begin instantly. It will also start radiating out from the bite mark, as the venom spreads.
In less than 30 minutes, the area will begin to swell up. Erythema and ecchymosis will follow, though they may not develop until an hour or more has passed.
Dizziness, sweating, breathlessness and a fast heartbeat can also start immediately. These symptoms may be triggered by anxiety rather than the venom itself.
Whether or not you develop more severe symptoms, and how soon they begin, will depend on:
- The amount of venom that was injected.
- Your age. Children and the elderly are more likely to experience complications.
- Whether you go into anaphylactic shock.
You are extremely unlikely to die within the first four hours. Most deaths from copperheads occur many hours, or even days after the bite took place.
However, it’s still important to get to a hospital as soon as possible. If you go into anaphylactic shock, you could die very quickly.
What to Do When Bitten by a Copperhead
You may come across a copperhead if you live near the woods, or if you like to go on hikes. If you do see a copperhead, don’t panic. It’s unlikely that you’ll be bitten, providing you stay calm.
First of all, keep still, so that the snake doesn’t feel threatened. Avoid making any sudden movements.
Next, remove yourself from the situation. If you’re outside its strike range, you’re safe. Keeping your eyes on the snake, back slowly away from it.
Do not approach the snake, try to scare it off, or attempt to harm, capture or kill it. The more of a threat the snake perceives you to be, the more likely it will bite you.
If the snake is in your yard and you want rid of it, phone a pest control service. Do not attempt to remove the snake yourself.
Copperheads are very unlikely to bite if you leave them alone. However, if you are one of the unlucky ones, here’s what to do.
Copperhead Snake Bite Treatment Protocol
When bitten by a copperhead, your priority should be to get to a hospital. The sooner you receive medical attention, the less damage will be done.
If you’re with someone else, have them drive you. Never try to drive yourself – you could become incapacitated when the symptoms kick in. If you’re alone, dial 911 and ask for an ambulance.
While you’re waiting for the ambulance:
- Remove all jewelry, watches and tight clothes near the bite area. Your wound will begin to swell.
- Try to stay still. Keep the wound at or below heart-level, if possible.
- Write down a description of what the snake looked like, if you aren’t 100% sure it was a copperhead. This will help medical professionals ensure you receive the correct antivenom, if it’s necessary.
Once you’re at the hospital, the doctors will monitor your symptoms to estimate how much venom was injected. If they feel that antivenom is necessary, they’ll administer CroFab antivenom, which is designed for pit vipers.
You may not need antivenom at all if you aren’t reacting very badly to the bite. In this case, your treatment will likely involve symptom monitoring and management. You may have to stay in the hospital overnight, but you should make a full recovery.
What Not to Do When Bitten by a Copperhead
Finally, there are some things that you should avoid doing if you get bitten. The following procedures may have been recommended in the past, but they are no longer.
- Do not cut the wound, or try to suck out or squeeze out the venom. All that this accomplishes is making your wound bleed more.
- Do not apply a tourniquet. This will concentrate the venom in one area, worsening the damage.
- Do not apply ice. This could harm your skin and won’t prevent the effects of the venom.
Do not stay home and try to deal with the bite yourself, even if you feel well initially. You’ve got a higher likelihood of dying, or experiencing severe complications, if you don’t get treatment.