Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) aren’t aggressive snakes, but they can be defensive. If you ever encounter one at the water’s edge, or while swimming, you might have seen their defensive display. They open their mouths wide to warn you off. If you don’t leave them alone, they will bite.
Cottonmouths are easily avoided in the wild. They spend most of their time either in the water, or at the water’s edge. When they swim, they stay at the surface of the water, and you can see them coming. So long as you exercise caution, you’ll be able to steer clear of them.
- 1 Can a Water Moccasin Bite Kill a Human?
- 1.1 How Fast Can a Cottonmouth Kill You?
- 1.2 Can a Cottonmouth Bite You Underwater?
- 1.3 Can a Baby Cottonmouth Kill You?
- 1.4 Copperhead vs. Cottonmouth Venom
- 1.5 Do Many People Die from Cottonmouth Bites?
- 1.6 How Long Are Water Moccasin Fangs?
- 1.7 Can a Cottonmouth Bite Through Clothes?
- 1.8 What Does a Cottonmouth Bite Feel Like?
- 1.9 Can You Survive a Water Moccasin Bite Without Treatment?
- 1.10 What to Do If a Cottonmouth Bites You
- 1.11 What Not to Do When Bitten by a Cottonmouth
- 1.12 Further Information About Snakes:
Can a Water Moccasin Bite Kill a Human?
Cottonmouth venom is potent, but not quite as potent as that of other venomous snakes in America. Can you die from a cottonmouth bite? You most definitely can.
They’re big snakes with large fangs, and carry enough venom to kill you, especially if they bite more than once. And because they’re in the same family as rattlesnakes, their venom is more than potent enough to put an end to your life.
How does it work? Their venom is hemotoxic. That means it finds and breaks down blood cells—not just red blood cells, but platelets too.
You might think that this would only hurt you or be lethal if you had a big wound that wouldn’t stop bleeding, but that’s not the case. Because your blood can’t clot, you quickly experience hemorrhages throughout your body.
However, their venom isn’t potent enough to kill every time. Deaths from water moccasin bites are very rare. They have just enough venom to kill a fully-grown person, but snakes don’t use all of their venom at once.
They only stand a good chance of killing you if they bite you several times, if you’re already weak, or if you’re young or old. Other than in those scenarios, a bite most likely won’t kill. Here are some other interesting and useful to know facts about water moccasins.
How Fast Can a Cottonmouth Kill You?
A cottonmouth can bite very quickly—in the blink of an eye. Most venomous snakes share this trait, because it helps them when they’re trying to catch prey or ward off a predator.
You should stay out of their bite range, which is about 2/3 the length of their body. When you’re in their bite range, you won’t have quick enough reflexes to avoid them should they try to bite.
How quickly a cottonmouth bite kills will depend on where you’re bitten, and how much venom they snake used. Cottonmouth venom gets into your bloodstream and travels around your body.
It eventually reaches your lungs, and stops you from being able to breathe by paralyzing the muscles and nerves that make them work.
The speed with which you’ll die when you’re bitten depends on how quickly that can happen. If the bite hits an artery, for example, you can die within just a few minutes.
Fortunately, this never happens in practice. They leave venom just under the skin, where it will take longer to travel through the tiny capillaries there and your body.
It will take between two hours and two days, depending on where the bite is. The closer to the heart, the quicker the bite will kill.
Because it takes hours to kill, cottonmouth venom seldom does. People manage to find medical assistance before their ‘time is up’.
Can a Cottonmouth Bite You Underwater?
Yes, cottonmouths can bite in the water, but they’re much less likely to than if you encounter them on land. Cottonmouths can hunt both on the river or lake’s edge and underwater. When they’re hunting for fish, for example, they have to be able to bite underwater.
But just because they can, that doesn’t mean they will. When they’re in the water, cottonmouths are much more likely to try and escape than do anything else.
Rivers and lakes are quite open spaces, and so the snake can quite quickly get away. Because snakes only bite people when they feel cornered or threatened, this means that the cottonmouth is much more likely to turn tail and swim away.
Either way, cottonmouths don’t swim underwater like eels. They swim on the surface of the water, with their head held a few inches above the surface.
They won’t swim towards you, because you’re big and threatening to them. And if you come across one by accident, for example by jumping into a lake, they’re more likely to try and get away.
It’s only if you come up close and threaten them that they’ll consider biting you. This applies more to when they’re at the water’s edge.
Can a Baby Cottonmouth Kill You?
All venomous snakes hatch with venom that’s ready for them to use. Snake mothers don’t look after their young, so the young have to be ready to fend for themselves.
Given that a venomous snake’s only weapons are their fangs and venom, it makes sense for them to have some ready. And since they can only eat if they have venom, they need some or they’ll starve.
However, they can’t kill you as easily as an adult can for the following reasons:
- They don’t have as much venom. Their venom glands are smaller and can therefore only contain a small amount of the stuff. Remember, these snakes use venom to immobilize tiny rodents, fish and amphibians. They don’t need much.
- A baby cottonmouth’s fangs are shorter than those of adults. As such, they’ll have difficulty biting deeper than just under your skin. The deeper the bite, the more chance of hitting an artery, which is how they kill you quickly. A shallow bite using less venom is less likely to injure or kill.
Copperhead vs. Cottonmouth Venom
Both snakes are pit vipers, the same family as rattlesnakes, and both spend much of their time in the water. Both snakes are brown when they’re younger.
According to Clinical Toxicology, even medical professionals have difficulty identifying which snake is which. In the study above, only 21% of cottonmouths were identified correctly.
This is a big problem, because cottonmouth venom is more dangerous than copperhead venom. It’s almost impossible for a copperhead to kill you, because their venom isn’t strong enough.
While their names are similar, the two snakes are easy to tell apart. The clue is in their names. Copperheads have rusty red colored heads.
Cottonmouths have a unique defensive behavior where they open their mouth as wide as they can. The inside is pure white, like cotton. The point is to startle any would-be predator.
Do Many People Die from Cottonmouth Bites?
You’ve likely heard various stories of people dying from cottonmouth bites. These are usually urban legends. For example, there’s one about a mother water-skiing with her family who falls into a ‘nest’ of cottonmouths. They attack her in a frenzy, almost like piranhas.
These stories aren’t true. There’s no such thing as a cottonmouth ‘nest.’ Cottonmouths don’t lay eggs like other snakes. Instead, they give birth to live young. But once those young are born, they head off, and their mother doesn’t look after them. Cottonmouths don’t live in groups or socialize.
However, since cottonmouths are one of the most common venomous snakes here in the U.S., bites are common. It’s just that people don’t usually die from them.
A news article about a Missouri man that died from a likely cottonmouth bite in 2015 stated that it was likely the first cottonmouth bite death the state had ever seen. The man had been bitten more than once, and refused medical treatment.
As for specific figures, the number of people that die is fewer than one per year. With proper medical treatment, almost every person bitten by a cottonmouth survives.
How Long Are Water Moccasin Fangs?
Cottonmouth fangs are about an inch long. The bigger the snake, the bigger their fangs will be. However, you can’t see the true length of their fangs because of their gums.
Despite that, they can bite you with the full length of their fangs as their gums are flexible and can draw back when they bite.
Cottonmouth snake fangs are hollow, like those of other venomous snakes. When they bite, the muscles around their venom gland contract, and the venom shoots quickly through a duct and into the fang. If they made contact with you, the venom will flood the bite wound, ideally (for the snake) pumping straight into a vein or artery.
Because snakes bite so quickly and ferociously, these fangs often break off. Snakes can grow their fangs back an unlimited number of times. They won’t be able to use their venom until they grow their fangs back.
Water moccasins also have a small number of teeth, lining the bottom of each jaw. If you didn’t know, snakes have four jaws; two on the bottom and two on the top.
None of the jaws are directly connected, so that they can expand their mouth to swallow prey whole. Either way, they have small teeth lining each jaw to hold prey in place as they bite it. These teeth can’t shoot venom; they aren’t hollow. They’re just like normal teeth.
Can a Cottonmouth Bite Through Clothes?
Cottonmouths can bite through clothes, although it depends on what you’re wearing. They can bite through a T-shirt almost as if it weren’t there, for example, because the fabric is soft and thin. However, they would struggle to bite through:
- Shoes and boots, especially any rubber part of a shoe
- Thick denim jeans, as they’re made from a tough material
- Anything thick and padded like a coat
The only issue is that you wouldn’t be wearing your clothes while you’re swimming! Far better than keeping your clothes on when you swim is avoiding any lake or pond where you can see cottonmouths, or that seems like the ideal habitat for them.
What Does a Cottonmouth Bite Feel Like?
The first thing you’ll notice when you’re bitten by a water moccasin is the pain. This will first be localized around the bite wound, which will sting and feel hot. Then, the pain will move upwards from wherever you were bitten, towards the heart.
You will also experience more general symptoms. You’ll feel dizzy and nauseous, for example, and may have trouble balancing.
You’re also likely to feel nervous or anxious, or have full panic attack symptoms. Your breathing will be shallow and fast, and you may have trouble concentrating and focusing on your vision. These symptoms are common to most kinds of snake bite.
If the cottonmouth managed to hit an artery, or used a lot of venom, then you may also experience difficulty breathing. This progressively gets worse and worse.
Can You Survive a Water Moccasin Bite Without Treatment?
You can, but you shouldn’t try. As we pointed out above, sometimes the snake might graze you with their fangs, only using a small amount of venom.
Furthermore, this bite might be on an extremity like your ankle or toes. When that’s the case, your body will have longer to defend itself, and less venom will enter your system. As such, your chances of surviving the bite will go up.
However, you shouldn’t ever try and survive a bite without seeking medical attention. Even if they don’t use much venom, it’s important to get your wound checked.
That’s because snakes carry salmonella and all sorts of bacteria that could infect your wound. So even if you don’t die from the venom, you could end up with a nasty, red, seeping wound.
What to Do If a Cottonmouth Bites You
If you’re bitten, the first thing you should do is keep calm. When you panic, your heart pumps more quickly, helping the venom move around your body.
Not only that, but your decision-making skills will be impaired. You should try and keep as calm as possible, and reassure yourself that you’re likely to have quite a lot of time.
You have to get yourself to the nearest hospital. Call the emergency services, and they’ll be able to take you there. It’s important not to just pick a hospital and try and get there yourself, even if you think it might be quicker.
You won’t be able to drive, and even if you did get there, they might not have the antivenom that you need. Not all hospitals have every single antivenom ‘on tap,’ so call 911, and they’ll direct you to a hospital that does.
As for water moccasin bite treatment, you will be administered antivenom. Antivenom is made from snake venom itself. Believe it or not, the venom is injected into a host animal like a sheep, and the sheep’s antibodies produced in response to the bite are then harvested. That’s what antivenom is!
Either way, the medical professional may use just one or as many as a dozen vials of antivenom, depending on the severity of the bite and the amount of venom used.
What Not to Do When Bitten by a Cottonmouth
Don’t deal with the bite wound yourself. Almost every piece of advice you’ve likely heard is wrong. You can’t suck the venom out, for example. It’s physically impossible; it would be like trying to suck fat tissue from a wound. It just doesn’t work like that. Even if you could, you’d end up with the venom in your mouth. That would be just as bad.
You also shouldn’t try to cut the wound. Cutting the wound and letting the venom ‘drain out’ doesn’t work like people think it does. All you’ll do is increase the risk that your bite wound will get infected. So, even if you do survive the snake bite, you could die from sepsis.