It might be your worst nightmare to be bitten by a snake, let alone a poisonous (venomous) snake. Dangerous snakes are made even scarier because most people don’t understand them.
Snakes usually bite people because a person encroached on the snake, either making them feel threatened, or stepping on them. Most deadly snake bites occur because people try and pick up, move or kill venomous snakes. Snakes never bite people for no reason, and they don’t hunt for people either.
This applies both to snakes you find in the wild, and snakes you can keep as pets. The causes of snake bites are similar whatever the situation, though, since in most situations snakes bite because they’re threatened by humans.
Why Do Snakes Bite People?
Let’s start by looking at the reasons why wild snakes bite people. This could be a snake that you’ve encountered when hiking a trail, or one that’s found its way in your yard or home. Either way, these are common and avoidable mistakes people make that put them in danger.
1) Because the Person Was Drunk or High
When you drink, your decision-making faculties are impaired. For some people, that means approaching or trying to pick up a dangerous snake. Snakes are easy to underestimate, because they can strike as fast as lightning, and kill you when they do.
That’s why it’s best practice never to handle a snake, venomous or non-venomous, while drunk. Even if you manage to pick up the snake successfully, you’ll probably find a way to irritate it.
Maybe you’re holding it too tightly, or waving it about in the air, entirely by accident. It’s a sure-fire way to annoy them and get them to strike. This applies to any snake you might find hiking, like rattlesnakes and coral snakes, as well as pet snakes too.
2) Because They Misidentified the Snake
If you have some experience with snakes, you’ll be able to tell the most common kinds apart. But nature always has a way of making things difficult.
Coral snakes and certain kingsnakes, for example, share the same patterns and colors. You might be certain that you’re picking up a harmless kingsnake, but you’ve found a deadly coral snake.
Accidents happen, and even the most knowledgeable people can make mistakes. It’s just that in this case, the mistake could be the difference between life and death.
There are lots of resource guides you can use, either online or in book form, that will help you tell the difference between snakes. But even so, it’s best practice not to go around picking snakes up if you don’t have the right tools for the job, like tongs/hooks and protective clothing.
3) Trying to Impress Someone
Snakes are cool. Finding one on a trail or in your yard is always an interesting experience. And like when you’re drunk, trying to impress somebody can make you do silly things too.
But it’s interesting whether you choose to pick it up or not. Of course, you can get a closer look if you’re holding them, but they’re an animal. If you tried to pick up a bird or a fox, for example, they’d peck at you or bite at you. A snake is no different, and if it’s never encountered people before, it won’t appreciate you getting up close and personal.
If this applies to you, there’s a simple fix. Take a step back from the situation and think.
4) Trying to Kill or Capture the Snake
Most of the public has one of two reactions to seeing a snake, either on a hiking trail or in their yard. Either they’ll not want to get any closer because they’re afraid of snakes, or they’ll do their best to deal with the problem. Herein lies another way to get bitten by a snake.
If you’re the kind of person that tries to capture or kill snakes when you see them, you’re making it much more likely that you’ll be in an accident.
From the snake’s point of view, you’re a colossal creature advancing on them, either trying to pick them up and move them, or just straight up trying to hit them.
Of course, they’re going to get angry at you. So, if you can’t successfully budge them or kill them with your first try, the snake will likely try and get you back.
5) Didn’t See the Snake
Snakes are great at hiding. They’re often somewhat camouflaged, which means they’re difficult to spot in long grass or on brown rocks.
If you’re not paying attention, then it’s possible to tread on a snake accidentally. Snakes don’t take kindly to being tread on. They’ll nip you on the ankle, and you’ll be history.
The only way to avoid stepping on a snake is to pay more attention to where you’re going. Stick to clear paths, and always watch the trail in front of you to see if anything dangerous is ahead.
Rattlesnakes are a dull brown and gray color so that they can stay hidden, but unfortunately, this makes them much easier to step on by accident.
It also applies to cottonmouths. Cottonmouths hang out in trees above water, or in the water itself. They can be difficult to spot if you aren’t looking carefully. The only exception is coral snakes, which are as bright and colorful as possible to scare predators away.
6) Do Snakes Hunt People?
Snakes only hunt for food; they don’t hunt for sport. We’re far too big for any venomous snake to eat. Even the biggest venomous snakes in the world, king cobras, don’t ‘hunt’ for people.
Remember, snakes eat their food whole. They don’t chew like humans or other mammals. That’s because they lack the teeth to do it with. They couldn’t eat us even if they wanted to.
That being said, there are a couple of stories—some urban legends, others true—of snakes attacking and eating humans. However, these stories relate to reticulated pythons.
These snakes can reach twenty, twenty-five, perhaps even thirty feet long. They live in the jungles of southeast Asia, and are the biggest constrictors alive today. They’re just big enough to eat a person.
But if you’re hiking in North America, don’t worry. There’s no snake big enough to want to hunt you.
7) Suboptimal Care Causes Bites
The main reason why a corn snake or ball python might bite you is that you aren’t caring for them properly. If the temperature or humidity are set wrong, this causes them stress, and they might lash out. The same applies if they don’t have any enrichment like hides, so that they feel vulnerable.
Poor handling technique also causes bites. If you pick the snake up and wave them around, grip them too hard or make lots of sudden movements, then your snake will feel threatened.
8) Because the Person Thought They Were an Expert
A snake owner knows much more about snakes than the average member of the public. But that doesn’t mean they know everything.
Let’s say that you know not to handle them when they’re in their blue phase, or before/after eating. You’ve got their temperature and humidity set perfectly. But just because you know everything there is to know about ball pythons, that doesn’t mean you understand the temperament of a rattlesnake.
That’s why you may have heard the phrase a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It’s important to recognize that just because you know some things, that doesn’t mean you know everything there is to know. You aren’t qualified to handle a rattlesnake just because you know about corns.
9) Because the Snake Felt Cornered
Like most reptiles, snakes base how much they feel like striking on several factors. If the snake is backed into a corner, then they’ll feel like they have no option but to strike.
Most snakes when they encounter a person will try and ‘run’ away. But if they can’t, either because they’re physically stuck or because they’re surrounded, then they’ll lash out at you. This usually happens when you reach into their enclosure without warning to pick them up.
If you’re approaching a snake and they feel cornered, they’ll let you know. Snake defensive behavior is obvious. A rattlesnake rattles their tail, for example.
A king cobra rears up and spreads its hood. Common pet snakes get into their striking position, an S-shape, with their head pointed straight at you, hissing. If you see a snake displaying defensive behavior, don’t force the issue. Give them space.
10) Do Snakes Attack Humans for No Reason?
Snakes don’t attack people unless they have a good reason to. If you’re trying to pick them up, they see that as a direct threat.
No other animal would try and pick them up, for any reason other than to eat them! If you’re cornering them, again, it’s because they think you’re trying to kill them. If you tread on them, they’re fighting back.
If you walk up towards a snake on a path, they’ll likely turn tail and flee. They don’t have great eyesight, but will eventually see you coming, and will retreat to nearby undergrowth.
But if they don’t, they’ll get defensive. It’s at that point that you should look for a different path, and stop getting any closer to the threatening snake.
How to Avoid Snakes While Hiking
In certain parts of the country, there’s only so much you can do to avoid snakes while hiking. You’re going to come across them eventually. But to minimize dangerous contact with snakes (venomous or not), here are a few tips to avoid snake bites.
- Pick well-maintained trails. On popular trails, rattlesnakes will be reported by other hikers. They may then either be moved on or killed by a ranger.
- Avoid long grass and undergrowth. Snakes prefer secluded areas rather than open plains. If you head into long, untamed grass, you’re increasing the chances you’ll step on a snake.
- If you see a snake on the path ahead, choose another path where possible. If that’s not possible, you may have to turn around! Remember that where you see one rattlesnake, there are likely to be more, as they have communal dens.
- Wear rattlesnake-proof boots. Boots like these cover the ankle and lower leg, so that rattlesnakes can’t sink their teeth into you. These aren’t an alternative to treading carefully, of course, but they do save lives.
Aside from that, use common sense and remain aware of your surroundings. Snakes are most likely to sit at the edge of a trail, near the undergrowth. If you hike for long enough, you’ll come across a snake eventually. Knowing how to react when you do is the important thing.
What to Do If Bitten by a Snake
If you’re bitten by a snake, remain calm. You won’t help yourself by panicking.
Losing your cool quite literally helps the venom move through your body more quickly, because your heart is pumping quicker. Not only that, but keeping a clear head will help you make the right decisions in your situation.
Check the Bite Wound
Venomous snakes and non-venomous snakes have different teeth. Venomous snakes have two long fangs at the front of their mouth. When you’re bitten by a venomous snake, it’s these two fangs which will leave a mark.
A non-venomous snake bite looks different, because non-venomous snakes have different teeth to venomous ones. Non-venomous snakes do often have two fangs at the front that are a little longer than the rest of their teeth, but not by much.
It’s their other teeth that make the difference. A nonvenomous snake bite looks like a horseshoe, with little bite marks all in a row.
However, not all bites look the same. It’s possible to be tagged by a venomous snake which leaves no obvious bite marks at all. Other symptoms that are common for venomous bites include:
- Severe pain, often immediate
- Swelling, bruising and bleeding around the bite
- Anxiety and panic
- Dizziness, blurred vision and headache
- In the worst case, breathing problems and trouble balancing
Bear in mind that when we say ‘check the bite wound,’ we don’t mean that you should sit there poking and prodding it for hours. Time is of the essence if you’re bitten by a potentially dangerous snake. Take a quick look, assess the damage, and move on.
Use a Pressure Immobilization Bandage
A pressure immobilization bandage is a useful kit to have on hand if you’re walking through snake country. It’s essentially like a bandage, but wraps tighter.
The idea behind it is that it cuts off circulation to your capillaries, the tiny blood vessels that provide blood to your skin. Since the majority of the venom sits around the bite wound, seeping into your bloodstream, if you can cut off your capillaries, then this would slow the venom down.
Apply the pressure immobilization bandage as directed. Place it directly over the bite mark. It should be long enough that it sits a little above and below the bite mark, too.
Once you’ve wrapped the bandage around the wound, keep the bite above your heart. This will further reduce the amount of venom that gets into your bloodstream.
Medical professionals are unsure whether these bandages work. As such, you’ll hear different opinions on the matter. The Journal of Medical Toxicology issued a position statement clarifying that they didn’t recommend using them in 2011.
However, a paper in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine did recommend them on the basis that in a sample study on pigs, they dramatically extended the time before the venom took effect. As such, it’s unclear whether they should be used.
Get to Hospital ASAP
Get yourself to a hospital or clinic. There isn’t anything more you can do for yourself—at least nothing more that will help. As such, you should call 911 as soon as possible. Tell them exactly what happened, and if you happen to know, what snake you think might have bitten you.
The person on the other end of the phone will be able to figure out where you should go, and how long it will take. It’s important that they send you to the right hospital, because not all hospitals have every single antivenom. You shouldn’t just head to your nearest hospital (unless there’s no alternative, like if you can’t get phone signal).
If the rattlesnake bit you once on the foot, you should have several hours before the worst effects set in. You’ll have lots of time to get to a hospital and receive a dose of antivenom.