The U.S. is home to around 20 species of venomous snake, including pit vipers and coral snakes. You’re significantly more likely to come across one if you like to go on hikes in the wilderness, especially if you live in the hottest American states (such as Texas and Florida).
We’ll look at how to tell if you’ve been bitten by a snake, and what snake bites look like. We’ll also discuss the symptoms of both venomous and non-venomous snake bites, and how quickly they appear. Finally, you’ll discover how long it takes to die from a snake bite.
- 1 Do All Snakes Bite?
- 2 How to Tell If You’ve Been Bitten by a Snake
- 3 What Are the Symptoms of a Venomous Snake Bite?
- 4 How Long Does It Take to Die from a Snake Bite?
Do All Snakes Bite?
There are over 3,000 species of snake in the world. They’re found practically all over the globe, on every continent except Antarctica.
As you might imagine, not all snakes are the same. They come in many different colors, sizes, and body shapes. Some are active hunters; others are ambush predators. Many snakes eat rodents whereas others hunt lizards, frogs or even other snakes.
And of course, some snakes are venomous, while others aren’t. However, regardless of this, all snakes bite. They bite to subdue their prey, but also to defend themselves from potential predators.
Some are quicker to bite than others, however. For example, the Western hognose snake, found throughout central U.S., is famous for rarely biting in defense. When threatened, it will puff out its neck and bluff-strike with its mouth closed. It may even play dead, but will rarely bite.
The saw-scaled viper, native to Asia, is quite the opposite. This highly venomous snake is famed for being aggressive and quick to strike. It is responsible for over 5,000 human deaths per year.
The only snakes which do not bite are egg-eating snakes. They physically can’t, owing to the fact that they have no teeth at all. They do not need teeth, as they exclusively feed on bird eggs.
Reasons Why Snakes Bite Humans
There are two primary reasons why a snake would bite a human:
- Mistaken you for prey. Unlikely as an average human is much bigger than most snakes. However, if you insert your hand into a captive snake’s enclosure, it may mistake you for a rat.
- Feeling threatened. Snakes are hard-wired to be wary of large animals. After all, we could easily kill a snake. If a snake thinks that you’re threatening it, it may bite as a warning.
No snake will bite a human for no reason. They’d rather stay away from us. Venomous snakes do not want to use their venom when it isn’t necessary.
Most people who have suffered snakebites provoked the snake in some way. For example, by trying to capture, kill or “shoo” it away. If you leave the snake alone, it will leave you alone.
You don’t have much to worry about if you’re bitten by a non-venomous snake. But if it’s non-venomous, you’ll most likely be in for a trip to the hospital.
Do Pet Snakes Bite Their Owners?
Captive-bred pet snakes are selectively bred to be comfortable around humans. This is why you can handle most pet snakes, such as corn snakes and ball pythons, freely. These snakes don’t typically feel threatened in the presence of a human, when a wild snake might.
However, it’s almost guaranteed that every snake owner will be bitten at some point. Even the most docile snakes can become startled or irritated, or mistake you for food.
You’re more likely to be bitten by a pet snake if:
- You handle the snake while it’s stressed, such as during the shedding process.
- You don’t handle your snake regularly enough (it may mistake you for food if it’s not used to being handled).
- Your hands smell like prey (always wash your hands before interacting with your snake).
- Your snake accidentally grabs your hand instead of its food. Always offer the prey with long tongs to avoid this.
- You surprise your snake, for example by reaching into the enclosure too quickly, or handling it too roughly.
Of course, most pet snakes are non-venomous. Even if you are bitten, you won’t come to much harm. Non-venomous snake bites don’t hurt as much as you might think.
How to Tell If You’ve Been Bitten by a Snake
If you’ve been bitten by a snake, you’ll almost certainly know it straight away. Unless the snake is extremely young, the bite is likely to hurt quite a bit. This goes for both venomous and non-venomous snakes.
Venomous snakes have two large, sharp fangs on their upper jaw. They are specifically designed to sink deep into the flesh, to administer venom.
Non-venomous snakes have several rows of small, hooked teeth (four upper rows and two lower). Though these teeth are small, they are quite sharp.
Pain will be the first symptom that you notice, along with visible bite marks on your skin. Most bites will also bleed copiously. Many snake venoms contain anticoagulant proteins, according to the Biochemical Journal.
That being said, there have been cases where people have not known they’ve been bitten. In 2008, a young British man died after a bite from the deadly black mamba. He didn’t feel the bite, or experience any pain. He felt the snake “brush against him,” according to an article in The Telegraph.
This is why it’s so important to learn to recognize a snakebite wound, and the associated symptoms.
What Does a Snake Bite Look Like?
Puncture marks from a snake’s bite look different depending on whether the snake is venomous or non-venomous.
Venomous snake bites consist of just two small dots where their fangs pierced the skin. Non-venomous snake bites, on the other hand, look very different. They’ll appear as a horseshoe-shaped cut, consisting of several tiny holes.
Non-venomous snake bites may initially look worse, and they may bleed freely, but they aren’t dangerous. Venomous snake bites will quickly be accompanied by a host of other symptoms, which could make you seriously ill.
What Are the Symptoms of a Venomous Snake Bite?
Not all venomous snakes produce the same symptoms. Even for snakes in the same subfamily, their venom can contain different properties that will affect their victims differently.
Venomous snake bite symptoms can, therefore, vary greatly depending on which snake bit you.
Some types of venom are hemotoxic. This means they destroy red blood cells and cause tissue damage. This kind of venom is common in pit vipers, such as rattlesnakes and copperheads.
Other snakes produce neurotoxic venom. This interferes with brain cells, disrupting neural processes. Many elapids, such as cobras and coral snakes, have neurotoxic venom.
In the U.S., there are only two kinds of venomous snake: pit vipers and coral snakes. Their symptoms are very different.
Symptoms of a Pit Viper Bite
If you’ve been bitten by a pit viper (including rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths), these are the symptoms you may experience.
- Immediate pain at the site of the bite. Rather than getting better with time, it will typically get worse. The pain will also begin to spread as the venom does.
- Swelling (edema) around the bite mark area. This is usually the first symptom you’ll notice, beginning within 15 minutes of the bite.
- Reddening of the skin (erythema). This will usually appear as a red ring around the bite mark.
- Bruising (ecchymosis). This is caused by the hemotoxic proteins, as blood cells begin to burst.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Numbness and tingling, particularly around the bite area and the mouth.
- Anxiety-like symptoms. These may include faintness, dizziness, sweating, an elevated heart rate, and fast breathing.
- A strange taste in the mouth, like metal.
The severity of these symptoms will vary depending on the species of snake, and how much venom was injected.
Usually, you’ll start to see some of the above symptoms within 30 minutes to an hour of being bitten. The symptoms may become quite severe in under four hours.
If no symptoms develop within eight hours, this probably means that no venom was injected. This is called a dry bite.
Symptoms of a Coral Snake Bite
Coral snakes are the only North American snake species that belongs to the family Elapidae. They belong in the same family as cobras, sea snakes, and mambas.
For this reason, coral snake venom is quite unlike that of pit vipers. It’s neurotoxic, meaning that it directly affects brain processes.
If you’ve been bitten by a coral snake, the symptoms will mostly be neurological. Because their venom doesn’t damage tissue, you probably won’t see any swelling, bruising or redness of the skin. You may not even feel much pain.
However, you will eventually start to feel very strange. You may experience:
- Dizziness and faintness
- Muscle twitches (fasciculations) or paralysis
- General weakness
- Confusion and disorientation
- Blurred or double vision
- Slurred speech
- Labored breathing
If left untreated, you may even go into cardiac arrest.
Fortunately, coral snakes are reluctant to inject venom. Around 60% of coral snake bites are dry.
However, even if you don’t notice any symptoms straight away, you should still go to a hospital. Symptom onset can be delayed. You may not notice any symptoms for several hours.
Just as some people can be allergic to bee or wasp stings, some people can be allergic to snake venom. It’s not particularly common, but it can happen. It’s more likely to happen to those who have already been bitten by a snake at some point.
Anaphylactic shock is an extreme reaction that can quickly result in death if left untreated. Symptoms include:
- Intense itching
- Facial swelling
- A fast heartbeat
- Low blood pressure
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
- Chest tightness and pain
- Dizziness and fainting
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell whether you’ll be allergic to snake venom until you’re bitten. That’s why it’s important to go to the hospital as soon as possible if you’re bitten by a venomous snake. Epinephrine and antivenom must be administered straight away.
What Are the Symptoms of a Non-Venomous Snake Bite?
Most of the wild snakes in the U.S. are non-venomous. These include, among many others:
- Garter snakes
- Gopher snakes (also called pine snakes and bull snakes)
- Hognose snakes
- Black racers
- Coachwhip snakes
- Rat snakes (including corn snakes)
- Green snakes
- Water snakes
Non-venomous snakes are unlikely to bite humans unless they feel severely threatened. However, if you step on one, for example, you may receive a bite. And of course, if you keep a non-venomous snake as a pet, you’re sure to get bitten from time to time.
A non-venomous snake bite is not much more serious than a bite from a cat. You’ll notice a horseshoe-shaped bite mark, with lots of tiny pinprick holes. The wound may bleed, and it may be slightly painful.
Certain snakes, such as garter snakes, have mild venom in their saliva. This is not dangerous, but it may cause redness, swelling, itching, and burning.
If you’re bitten by a non-venomous snake, wash the wound with clean water and antibacterial soap. Applying pressure can help stop bleeding. Then, apply an antiseptic spray or lotion, and affix a bandage.
It’s important to keep the wound clean, and inspect it daily for signs of infection. If you notice the pain getting worse, or any redness or swelling which persists after a few days, consult a doctor.
How Long Does It Take to Die from a Snake Bite?
In the U.S., you’re extremely unlikely to die from a snake bite. Around 7,000 – 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year in America, but out of those, only 5 or 6 will die.
This is for the simple reason that the United States has excellent medical care. Most hospitals are well-stocked with antivenom. If you can get to a hospital within 30 minutes of being bitten, you will most likely make a full recovery.
In cases where snakebite victims die, it’s usually for one of the following reasons.
- They did not seek medical treatment.
- They suffered an extreme reaction (anaphylactic shock).
- They had a pre-existing medical condition, such as a heart condition. Snake venom can aggravate certain conditions.
Certain snakes – such as Australia’s inland taipan and India’s black mamba – have the power to kill very quickly. If you’re bitten by one of these snakes, you may die within the hour. Fortunately, these extremely venomous snakes can’t be found in the U.S.
It takes several hours for a pit viper or coral snake bite to result in death. It can take a day or more in some cases. However, if you do go into anaphylactic shock, you could die much more quickly.
If you are bitten by a snake, call an ambulance straight away. Don’t wait to see whether you develop symptoms.
How Do They Treat Snake Bites in Hospital?
The best way to avoid dying from a snake bite is to receive medical treatment in hospital. U.S. hospitals are well-stocked with antivenom, and our medical professionals are used to treating snake bites.
The first thing the doctors will do is try to find out what kind of snake bit you. They’ll need to know whether it was a pit viper or coral snake. They don’t need to know the exact species.
The next step will be symptom monitoring. Doctors only like to administer antivenom if it’s necessary, as it can cause unwanted side-effects.
So, initially, they’ll monitor you to determine how much venom was injected. They’ll look at your heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels.
If you’ve lost a lot of blood, you may need a blood transfusion. You may also need medicines to raise your blood pressure or control other symptoms. These may be administered intravenously.
If the doctors think that you’ve received a large enough dose of venom, you may need antivenom. Pit viper bites are treated with CroFab antivenom, whereas coral snake bites are treated with Micrurus Fulvius antivenom. Medical staff will closely monitor you after administering it, as you could develop a reaction to it.
It may take anywhere between two days and several months to recover from a venomous snake bite. This will depend on what snake bit you, how much venom was injected, and your overall health. Young children and the elderly may take extra time to recover.