Copperhead snakes (Agkistrodon contortrix) are moderately-sized, ranging from 36 to 48 inches and weighing around ½ to ¾ of a pound. Copperheads have a copper-red head, a triangular-shaped head, and an hourglass pattern along the length of their body. They are a member of the pit viper family, so they are venomous, but is a copperhead’s bite fatal to humans?
Although more people are bitten by copperheads than any other venomous snake, their toxins rarely kill people. Their venom is mild compared to other pit vipers, such as rattlesnakes. In many cases, a copperhead’s initial strike will not include venom (dry bites). When threatened further, it will likely deliver a second strike that almost always includes venom.
You’re only likely to die from a copperhead bite if you experience a severe anaphylactic reaction and don’t go to a hospital. Children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are most at risk. A medical room visit will usually suffice, and antivenom may be administered.
Are Copperhead Snake Bites Deadly?
Copperhead bites are painful, but their venom is much milder than most venomous snakes found in North America. Tests on mice show that their venom is one of the least potent of all pit vipers, and slightly less powerful than the venom of its close relative, the cottonmouth snake.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, venomous snakes attack up to 7000-8000 people every year in the US, with the most common attacker being the copperhead.
Unlike most pit vipers, copperheads do not try to escape when threatened. Instead, they’ll freeze in their position. They’re also very easily camouflaged. An individual is more likely to be bitten by a copperhead because he or she may step on the snake without realizing it’s there.
According to The Journal of the American Medical Association, about 2,920 individuals are bitten by copperhead snakes every year in the United States. That’s 16 in every 1 million people annually. However, the fatality rate from copperhead bites is extremely low.
Only 0.01% of people who are bitten by copperhead snakes actually die. When a snake bites into the skin, it will cause serious damage to the tissue in that area. This increases one’s risk of a severe secondary infection.
The CDC states that the number of people who succumb to venomous snake bites will be much higher if they don’t seek immediate medical treatment.
Copperhead Snake Fatalities
Only 1 in 50 million snake bites from venomous snakes result in death, and a very small percentage of these fatalities are from copperheads, according to the University of Florida. The following are the recorded deaths caused by copperhead snakes in the 2000s and 2010s:
|Name, age, and gender||Date||Cause of Bite||Complications Before Death|
|Oliver Baker, 52, male||May 25, 2019||Accidentally stepped on the snake||Allergic reaction|
|Terry Brown, 50, male||July 2012||Trying to remove the snake||Heart attack|
|Wade Westbrook, 26, male||January 29, 2011||Trying to determine the snake’s sex||Coughing, vomiting, and collapse Anaphylactic shock|
|Trent Leprette, 31, male||June 2004||Trying to pick the snake up||Allergic reaction|
Deaths from copperhead snakes are rare because they aren’t aggressive snakes. People are most likely to get bitten by a copperhead if they try to pick them up or step on them in the yard or while exploring.
The best thing to do when you see a copperhead is to leave it alone. Avoid trying to relocate a copperhead snake as it will bite you and it will always try to return to its home base, such as your yard.
Who Is Most At Risk from a Copperhead Bite?
People who are most susceptible to death from a copperhead bite include:
- Elderly people
- People with weakened immune systems
- People with pre-existing conditions, such as heart disease
- People who are hypersensitive to snake venom
Why Copperhead Bites Aren’t Lethal
Copperhead venom is mild, but it can lead to complications in some people. The main cause of the low fatality rate with copperhead bites is that copperhead snakes often use a “warning bite” when agitated, threated or stepped on. This initial bite contains very little venom.
The most commonly affected areas of a human body by a copperhead snake are the extremities. 62% of the time, copperhead snakes attack the lower extremities, and 36% for the upper extremities. This indicates that copperhead snakes are not aggressive animals.
Copperhead snakes don’t see humans as prey species. A copperhead’s diet largely consists of mice, shrews and large insects, such as meaty caterpillars. Its venom consists of proteins and enzymes that break down red blood cells in the body.
With larger mammals, the copperhead snake will wait for its venom to kick in. The copperhead will then slither back and launch further attacks when the prey is weak.
Because humans aren’t copperhead food material, the snake only uses its bite to warn the attacker, not kill them. If a person continues to threaten a copperhead, the second bite will most likely contain enough venom to cause serious damage and even death to a human.
How Potent is Copperhead Venom?
LD50 is the lethal dose of venom required to kill 50% of the test population. The lower the LD50 of a certain venom, the stronger the venom is.
The United States is home for about 20 different species of venomous snakes, most of which are rattlesnakes. The toxicities of two other common venomous snakes are compared in the table below with the copperhead.
|Eastern coral snake||1.3|
What To Do If Bitten by a Copperhead Snake
Copperheads are masters of camouflage and the “stop and freeze” method when under threat. If you ever see a copperhead snake, just leave it alone. If a copperhead snake does bite you, follow these steps:
- Call for medical assistance
- Remove all watches and jewelry as these could cut into the skin during swelling
- Keep the bitten area below heart level
- Remain calm and still to prevent the venom from spreading faster
- Cover the bite with a dry, loose-fitting bandage
Antivenoms are available for copperhead bites. Knowing the color, size, and shape of the snake will help your doctor determine the best treatment for a snake bite, in case you’re not able to identify the snake.