A bite from a venomous snake, such as a rattlesnake, is an emergency. If a person gets bitten, it is critical that they receive medical help fast.

Share on Pinterest
herraez/Getty Images

Snakes tend to avoid humans, but they may bite as a last resort when they feel threatened or surprised. When a venomous snake bites someone, it is essential to call 911 and get the person to an emergency room right away.

Snakebites are treatable, however. According to the American Red Cross, of the around 7,000 people who get bitten by a snake in the United States every year, fewer than five people die as a result.

Rattlesnake bites are painful. Some immediate symptoms include:

  • bleeding
  • difficulty breathing
  • blurry vision
  • eyelid drooping
  • low blood pressure
  • nausea and vomiting
  • numbness
  • paralysis
  • a rapid pulse
  • a change in skin color
  • swelling
  • tingling
  • tissue damage
  • thirst
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • a weak pulse

If a person has been bitten by a rattlesnake, it is vital to get medical help immediately. The person must remain calm and receive reassurance that the bite is treatable.

What to do

While waiting for help to arrive, the American Red Cross advises people to wash the wound and apply a bandage to slow the spread of venom. People can take the following steps to do this:

  • Check for feeling, warmth, and color of the limb and note any changes in skin color and temperature.
  • Place the end of the bandage against the skin and wrap, using overlapping turns. Start at the point farthest from the heart and cover a long body section, such as a whole arm or a whole calf. To wrap a joint, use figure of eight turns to support it.
  • Check above and below the bite for feeling, warmth, and color, particularly in the fingers and toes.
  • Check the tightness of the bandage so that a finger can still pass easily but not loosely underneath it.
  • Keep the injured area still and make sure that it is lower than the heart. The person who has been bitten should only walk if absolutely necessary. Someone else should carry them to safety if possible.
  • Remove any rings or watches in anticipation of swelling.
  • Mark the leading edge of tenderness or swelling on the skin and write the time alongside it.

Once at the hospital, medical staff will administer antivenom medication.

If the snake is already dead, take a picture of the snake from a safe distance to show the doctors. This is to help them identify the type of snake and its venom.

What not to do

When treating a rattlesnake bite, there are some actions not to take. These include:

  • allowing the person who has been bitten to become overexerted
  • applying a tourniquet
  • applying a cold compress
  • cutting into the bite with a knife or razor
  • trying to suck out the venom
  • giving any stimulants or pain medication unless a doctor has instructed it
  • giving a person who has been bitten anything to eat or drink
  • raising the site of the bite above the person’s heart

Do not pick up the snake or try to trap it. Never handle a venomous snake, not even a dead one, as it can still bite from a reflex reaction for several hours after its death.

Some people can have an allergic reaction to snake venom. This reaction is called anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock, and it can happen either immediately or several hours after a person gets bitten. Some symptoms of an allergic reaction include:

  • itchy skin with hives and flushing
  • swollen face, lips, tongue, and throat, leading to difficulty breathing
  • a rapid heartbeat
  • nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

If the reaction leads to a drop in blood pressure, it can also cause:

  • dizziness
  • confusion
  • faintness
  • cold and clammy skin
  • blindness

Someone who has been bitten by a snake may also go into shock. This is a medical emergency in its own right and has similar symptoms to anaphylaxis. Symptoms of shock include:

  • faintness and collapsing
  • pale, cold, and clammy skin
  • sweating
  • rapid, shallow breath
  • blindness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • drowsiness or loss of consciousness

If the bitten person is showing symptoms of shock, lay them down and raise their legs. Use a coat or blanket to help keep them warm.

Rattlesnakes have a rattle or partial rattle, which comprises interlocking rings. These rings are made of segments of keratin, which is the same material in human fingernails. When a snake vibrates the segments of keratin, it lets off a hissing sound as a warning.

There are 30 recognized species of rattlesnake, ranging from 1 to 7 feet (ft) in length. Rattlesnakes have heavy bodies and diamond shaped heads with a characteristic “pit” on each side.

They live across the U.S., Mexico, and South America. In the U.S., they live in the desert sand dunes of the southwest, the swamplands of the southeast, and the meadows of the northeast. They can live anywhere from sea level up to altitudes of 11,000 ft.

In areas where temperatures drop to 40°F (4.4ºC) or lower, rattlesnakes may hibernate in the winter. Being cold-blooded, they will sunbathe on flat surfaces in the open during the day to warm up. In places where daytime temperatures top 90°F (32.2ºC), rattlesnakes tend to be more active at night.

Rattlesnake venom

The exact makeup and strength of the venom depend on the species of the rattlesnake and where it lives.

Venom is produced in glands in the snake’s upper jaw, and it passes through the venom duct before the snake delivers it through its large, hollow fangs. Snakes inject the poisonous liquid rapidly, and they can control the amount of venom they release.

People should try to avoid areas where snakes may be hiding, such as under rocks and logs. A person should never pick up or provoke a snake, as they will attack if they feel threatened.

When entering an area where it is hard for a person to see their feet when walking, they should tap the ground or foliage ahead of them with a stick. Snakes will try to avoid a person if given enough warning.

People should wear long pants and boots if hiking in an area where snakes may be living.

If someone sees a rattlesnake while hiking, they can stay safe with these tips:

  • Do not panic.
  • Stay at least 5 ft away from the snake.
  • Do not try to kill the snake, as this can increase the risk of it biting. Killing a snake is also illegal in some states.
  • Alert others to the snake and advise them to be cautious and to keep children and pets away from the area.

Most of the 7,000 snakebites in the U.S. each year are from rattlesnakes, but fewer than five people die as a result of these injuries.

Most of these deaths occur because the person has an allergic reaction to the venom, is in poor health, or is unable to receive medical attention in time.