I receive a version of these questions every spring.
Q: How many eastern snakes are venomous? What should I do if I see one or get bitten?
A: Most U.S. snakes are harmless, and east of the Mississippi River only seven of more than 50 native species are venomous. Copperheads and the two small rattlesnakes (massasauga and pygmy) are the least potent. A bite from any of these is rarely if ever lethal to humans, and often result in minimal damage to the victim. On the other hand, the three large pit vipers – diamondback rattler, timber (aka canebrake) rattler, and cottonmouth (aka water moccasin) – and the coral snake are potentially lethal. Snakes bite people in self-defense, usually as a last resort. Unless you pick up a snake, your chances of receiving a serious bite are slim. Dangerous snakebites are uncommon and most can be avoided. A few simple snake safety precautions can reduce your chances of a bite.
Many environmental variables can influence what species you encounter and how dangerous a bite from one might be. Following are basic guidelines for avoiding snakebite and recommendations for what to do in the unlikely event that someone is bitten.
1. Know the snakes in your region. If you are concerned about the potential danger of snakebite, find out which venomous snakes might be around and what they look like. Check out websites such as www.uga.edu/srelherp or consult a field guide.
2. Use common sense. If you see a snake, observe it from a few feet away. Do not try to catch it or disturb it in any way. Many people have been bitten trying to kill a large venomous snake in a natural area when they could have simply walked away from it. If you are in an area that venomous species inhabit, watch where you step and be careful where you put your hands. Rock ledges and fallen logs are prime real estate for snakes.
3. Wear proper attire. When you walk through areas known to have venomous snakes, such as swamps or thick vegetation, the safest approach is to wear long pants and high-topped boots or even snake leggings. Leather shoes are too thick for most snake fangs to penetrate.
4. Keep your car keys and cell phone handy. Having a vehicle to transport a snakebite victim to an emergency care facility and a cell phone to call ahead are smart precautions to take. Of course, such forethought would be valuable in any emergency.
5. Finally, for snakebites in the United States, forget the first aid you may have heard about. Suction immediately at the site of the bite might remove some venom, but cutting, the use of tourniquets, freezing and electric shock are all considered to do more harm than good.
Venomous snakebites are rare, and whether a bite is serious or minor depends on numerous factors, some that are within your control, some that are not. For example, many U.S. bites occur when someone picks up the snake – so don’t pick up a venomous snake.
For bites in which the person did not see the snake until too late to avoid being bitten, as many as half or more are “dry bites.” That means no venom was injected. But the victim has no influence over the venom delivery. The potency and amount of venom injected and the tendency of the snake to strike depend on the species and its disposition at the time of the bite. For instance, an eastern diamondback has venom 10 times as potent drop for drop as a copperhead. But a copperhead having a bad day might be far more likely than a rattlesnake to strike a person. Other variables that can affect the seriousness of snakebite are a person’s general health, physiology, and allergic reactions and whether effective medical treatment is received.
Don’t let irrational fear keep you from enjoying nature. Learn what you can about snakes in your region. Follow the basic rules of snake safety. Then get outside and enjoy the spring.
Send environmental questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.