Snake Bites: Everything You Need to Know

A bite from a venomous snake is called “envenomation.” These snake bites occur 7,000 to 8,000 times a year in the U.S. Of those, around five people will die from venomous snake bites.

It's critical to get immediate medical attention after a venomous snake bite. Call 911 or head to the nearest emergency room where hospital staff will administer antivenom. The sooner you receive this medicine, the less likely you will experience irreversible damage from the snake’s venom.

This article explains snake bite symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

A cobra rears up to strike a person's leg

Prapass Pulsub / Getty Images

Snake Bite Symptoms

Snake bite symptoms may vary depending on what type of snake bit you. However, some general symptoms accompany many snake bites.

General Symptoms

Snake bites can result in some common, general symptoms, including:

  • Puncture wounds from the bite
  • Swelling, pain, or bruising
  • Redness or darkening skin color
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating, fever, or chills
  • Weakness, dizziness, or fainting
  • Numbness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Confusion

Just as a person may be allergic to insect bites and stings, some people may also have an allergy to snake bites and venom. Keep an eye out for allergy symptoms, especially severe allergic reactions, like anaphylaxis

What Is Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that requires immediate medical attention. Signs of anaphylaxis include sudden panic or sense of doom, difficulty breathing, an itchy rash, dizziness, and loss of consciousness.

Copperheads

Copperhead snake coiled up on rocks

Rex Lisman / Getty Images

Copperhead snakes are venomous and live in much of the U.S., primarily along the east coast and as far west as Texas. They are copper-tan in color and range from 2- to 4-feet long.

In addition to general symptoms, copperhead bites produce other notable symptoms, appearing minutes to hours after a bite. These include:

  • Pain
  • Rapid swelling
  • Bruising
  • Trouble breathing
  • Heart rhythm changes
  • Metallic, rubbery, or minty taste
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Lymph node swelling
  • Shock

Rattlesnakes 

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake on sand, coils and lifts its head

Kristian Bell / Getty Images

Rattlesnakes are located all over the U.S., but they are prominently found in the southwest. They have large bodies and triangle-shaped heads. Their most distinctive feature is their tail, which contains a “rattle,” a series of scales that rattle when the snake shakes its tail. They range in size from 1- to 8-feet long.

Rattlesnake bite symptoms are the same as other venomous snake bite symptoms and include:

  • Severe pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heart rhythm changes
  • Metallic, rubbery, or minty taste
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Lymph node swelling
  • Shock

Water Moccasins

Water moccasin lies coiled on forest floor

Rini Kools / Getty Images

The water moccasin is also called a cottonmouth snake. It is found in the southeast and the south-central U.S. They may be up to 6-feet long and have thick bodies. They have a triangular head and are dark brown to black.

Like other venomous snake bites, water moccasin bite symptoms include:

  • Severe, immediate pain
  • Swelling
  • Skin discoloration
  • Rapid breathing
  • Heart rate changes
  • Metallic, rubbery, or minty taste
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Lymph node swelling
  • Shock

Coral Snakes

Coral snake slithers in the grass

Mark Kostich / Getty Images

Coral snakes live in the southern U.S. They are often confused with non-venomous milk snakes because they look similar. Coral snakes can be up to 3-feet long and have red, yellow, and black bands along the body.

Symptom of coral snake bites include:

  • Mild pain
  • Weakness
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Increased salivation
  • Drooling
  • Slurred speech
  • Nausea and vomiting

Diagnosing Snake Bites

It is crucial to identify what type of snake bite you have to receive proper treatment. Therefore, a healthcare provider will evaluate your symptoms and injury, including venom, if present, to determine a course of care.

Venomous

To diagnose venomous snake bites, a healthcare provider will examine your injury and assess the symptoms you are experiencing.

In addition, they may run a blood test called a 20 Minute Whole Blood Clotting Test (20WBCT). This test evaluates whether your blood clots as expected. If not, it indicates you need antivenom.

An antibody test may determine the type of venom in someone’s body. However, since the test can take several hours, this is most often done after you’ve received treatment.

Keep any clothing that may have a snake’s venom on it since it may help healthcare providers identify the type of snake that bit you.

Treat All Snake Bites as an Emergency

Since it is sometimes impossible to know whether your snake bite is venomous or non-venomous, always treat every bite as a medical emergency.

Non-Venomous

Non-venomous snake bites are known as “dry bites.” While these bites can be extremely painful, once a healthcare provider evaluates them, they do not require antivenom.

If you are experiencing only localized symptoms, you may not need further tests. However, if there is any doubt, you may receive diagnostic tests noted above to rule out a venomous snake bite. 

Snake Bite Treatment

If a snake bites you, treat the bite as though it could be venomous and seek medical attention right away. However, never attempt to drive yourself to the hospital, as you could become dizzy or lose consciousness.

While you wait for medical assistance to arrive, take the following steps:

  • If possible, have someone take a photo of the snake from a safe distance
  • Stay calm
  • Sit or lie down
  • Remove rings and other items that may get stuck if you swell
  • Wash the wound with soap and water
  • Cover the bite with a bandage

In addition, you may want to mark the edge of the swelling so that you can see how or if the swelling increases over time. 

For venomous snake bites, a healthcare provider will give you antivenom by injection or by intravenous (IV) infusion. Hospital staff will evaluate your wound and thoroughly clean it for dry bites. Often, no further treatment is required. 

Common Treatment Misconceptions

You may have heard of some non-medical ways to treat snake bites. However, most often, non-medical treatment methods are unsafe. 

Avoid the following:

  • Never try to kill, trap, or handle the snake.
  • Get help immediately; don’t wait for symptoms.
  • Do not apply a tourniquet.
  • Do not cut the wound.
  • Do not suck out the venom.
  • Do not apply ice or soak the wound.
  • Do not drink alcohol.
  • Do not take pain relievers, including ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen.
  • Do not use electric shock therapy or other folk methods.

Remember, snake bites—even dry bites—should always be treated as medical emergencies. That means you should never attempt to treat them on your own.

Snake Bite Prevention

If you are going to be outside in places where venomous snakes live, it’s a good idea to take some precautions. These include:

  • Wear boots and long pants when hiking.
  • Stay on trails.
  • Stay away from long grasses and brush where snakes like to hide.
  • Never touch or disturb a snake.
  • Look carefully before disturbing rocks or other debris.
  • Always hike with someone.

In addition, keep pets leashed while on walks and teach kids to always leave snakes alone.

Summary

Snake bites may be venomous or "dry" (non-venomous). All snake bites produce pain, swelling, and puncture wounds. In addition, venomous snake bites can result in neurological symptoms, including a metallic taste, dizziness, heart rhythm changes, tingling, and trouble breathing. Even if you think you know the snake that bit you is non-venomous, you should treat every snake bite as a medical emergency and seek help right away.

A Word From Verywell

If you are bitten by a snake, feeling panicked is normal. Even so, it's essential to stay calm. So, take some deep breaths and call 911. Never wait to see if symptoms get worse before seeking care, and never attempt to treat a snake bite on your own. While you wait for medical attention, sit or lie down and ask someone to wash your wound and bandage it. Take heart that when people receive medical attention promptly, snake bites are rarely fatal.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How quickly should you treat a snake bite?

    You should seek medical attention immediately after a snake bite. Always presume that a snake bite is venomous and treat it as an emergency.

  • Which venomous snake is the most dangerous?

    The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the most venomous snake in North America.

  • Who is most at risk to be bitten by a snake?

    People who work outside or spend a lot of time outdoors are most at risk of snake bites. At-risk individuals include children, agricultural workers, and those without adequate housing.

  • What should you do if you encounter a snake?

    If you see a snake outside, leave it alone, and move away from it. Never try to pick up a snake or kill it.

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15 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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