A rattlesnake bite is a serious injury that needs immediate medical treatment. Most people are not prepared for such an event and this can lead to making the health complications worse. This post will help you understand what to do before the bite happens.
Snake Bite Situations
You can be bitten by a rattlesnake anytime you come across one. Rattlesnakes are most active in the spring and summer months after they have finished their winter brumation. They will be out looking for food and mates, which they do mostly at dusk and night. You can definitely stumble upon a large rattlesnake during the day when it is warm out and they will bite you if they feel threatened.
Most rattlesnake bites happen from stepping on one accidentally. This is because rattlesnakes are great at camouflage and staying hidden in tall grasses.
People are also bitten by rattlesnakes when they try to toy with one or pick it up. Only experienced snake handlers should attempt this as it is very dangerous.
If you go into an area that could have snakes in it, make sure to wear thick pants and boots. Also, do not go hunting or hiking outdoors alone, because if you are bitten you will likely need help from another person to get treated and taken to a hospital.
Most of the time, a rattlesnake will warn you with their rattle and hissing before they strike. If you hear this, you should step back and move on and leave the snake alone.
If you are bitten by a rattlesnake, it is important to remain calm. You may have received only a dry bite, where no venom was injected. If you did receive a dose of venom, calming your heart rate will help slow the spread of it throughout your body. This will keep your illness level potentially lower until you reach a hospital. Remaining calm will also help you think more clearly about the steps you need to take to get treated.
Identify the Snake Species (Rattlesnake, Copperhead, Water Moccasin, Harmless Snakes)
Most snakes in the U.S. and other regions in North America are non-venomous. So, if you are bitten, it is most likely going to be from a snake that cannot deliver venom.
If you come across a rattlesnake, it is usually easy to identify:
- It has a distinctive tail rattle
- Head that is triangular-shaped
- Spots and patterns on the body
- Colored tan, brown, and slightly grey
Copperhead Snake Identification
Copperhead snakes have strong venom and and cause some of the most severe bite responses in North America.
Characteristics of copperhead snakes include:
- Head and neck that is a coppery color
- Size of 2-4 feet
- Thick, robust bodies
- Light, dark brown, or greenish color bands.
- Hourglass shaped body
Water Moccasin Identification
Water Moccasins (aka Cottonmouth) are another poisonous snake that can be mistaken for a rattlesnake.
Signs that it is a Water Moccasin include:
- A head that is wedge-shaped.
- The eyes have slits between and below them.
- It has an olive or dark brown color.
- Its body is thick in the middle.
If you can identify the snake species, it will help to know what kind of treatment you need. If it is a harmless snake that has little to no venom, you will have received only a dry bite. In this case, you only need to disinfect the area for bacteria and bandage the wound. It is still a good idea to seek medical care at a hospital just in case. But knowing the snake is not venomous will help calm your nerves.
It may not be possible to identify the type of snake if it slithers off after biting you. However, you should have a few seconds to try and identify the snake before it’s gone.
Self-Care for Rattlesnake Bites
The time it takes to recover from a rattlesnake bite depends on how fast you recieved treatment. If you do not get any medical care and recieved a big dose of venom, your body could become severely impacted over the following 2 to 3 days.
After a rattlesnake bite has occurred and you have been treated by a medical professional, its important to practice some self-care to heal. This includes:
- Taking your prescribed medication.
- Following up with your doctor if an infection occurs.
- Attend follow-up appointments.
- Keep the bite wound covered until it is healed.
If you take the proper self-care your long-term prognosis is very good after a rattlesnake bite. If you are a healthy adult (not a child or elderly) you will recover faster. A shallower rattlesnake bite will also likely lead to a better outcome than a deeper bite.
Snake Bite Kits
A snake bite kit can help you treat your rattlesnake bite wound if it is impossible to reach medical help. They include a number of items, even suction pumps to remove venom from your body. They are fairly inexpensive and can fit inside a backpack quite easily.
Snake bite kits only help in extreme situations where you cannot get to a hospital. And they only work if you know exactly what to do (not easy to figure out if you’re the one who was bitten or the caregiver is in a panic).
You can buy a snake bite kit (recommended) or make your own by purchasing items online. However, as mentioned, the best course of action after being bitten by a rattlesnake is to go to the hospital, where you can recieve antivenom treatment.
Home Remedies & Tools
There are NO home remedies for rattlesnake bites that will replace proper care at a hospital. Worse, they can lull you into thinking they are working when they are not, because the full effects of the venom can take hours or days to occur.
Generally speaking, keeping calm, resting and drinking lots of water are the best course of action for a rattlesnake bite.
After that, the only real solution is to seek medical help as quickly as possible. This is especially true if a child or elderly person is bitten by a rattlesnake.
Cleaning the bite wound with disenfectant wipes will help, but make sure to wear gloves when doing so.
What about keeping your own antivenom supply? It would be nearly impossible to obtain and keep the correct antivenom (antivenin) vials at home to inject yourself. Antivenom has a short shelf life, specific storage requirements and the correct kind must be administered in the correct dosage or it won’t work.
Elevating the limb that was bitten is not good to do because it will help spread the venom to the rest of the body. You want to keep the bite area below heart level so the venom remains away from vital organs. During this time this victim should be transported to a hospital or awaiting an ambulance.
Using ice to treat a rattlesnake bite may do more harm than good. Ice will not effectively treat a rattlesnake bite. Too much cold can contribute to necrosis of the wound area due to tissue damage from reducing the circulation. Ice is not something you should apply to a rattlesnake bite wound.
Get Medical Help
Receiving medical help after a rattlesnake bite is vital. They will have antivenin (antivenom) vials on hand to inject and can monitor your vital signs.
Rattlesnake venom can harm your internal organs, so these may need to be checked out as well. Many people feel they are fine and the venom did little harm to them only to find out in a few hours that they are extremely sick. This can even happen within a hospital setting. You cannot be too cautious in this regard.
If you live in a region with rattlesnakes, there is more likely to be a doctor trained in the treatment of rattlesnake bites in your local medical facility. Not all medical personnel will be trained or experienced enough to handle rattlesnake bites and it’s important to get the right care to avoid long term injury.
There are some things you should do after a rattlesnake bite, and others you should not.
What Should You Do When Bitten By a Rattlesnake?
- Use your cell phone and contact medical help.
- Grab your car keys and drive yoruself or the victim to a hospital.
- Calm the victim down.
- Keep the wound below the height of the heart.
- Walk, ride or bike out of the area to safety if you feel able.
- Try and identify the snake species.
- Ligtly wrap the bite wound with gauze or a bandage.
What Should You NOT Do When Bitten By a Rattlesnake?
- Do NOT try to suck out the venom with your mouth.
- Do NOT apply ice to the bite area.
- Do NOT give the victim liquor to get them drunk (for pain relief).
- Do NOT give the victim painkillers.
- AVOID attempting to remove the venom with a snakebite kit (this is only useful when medical help is impossible to get to).
- Do NOT try to capture or kill the snake for identification purposes.
What is The Proper Snakebite Treatment?
If you have severe outward symptoms and signs from blood tests when you get to the hospital, you may be administered antivenin (antivenom). Not receivng antivenom when its needed can lead to hemorrhaging or organ failure. Intense symptoms may not show up immediately and it is easy to mistake a patient as recovering and send them home, only to find out they are not doing well later on.
You will most likely have to stay for observation and more tests for up to 6 hours or more. A severe rattlesnake bite could put a person in the hospital for several days and require multiple doses of antivenom treatment.
What If a Person is Bitten By a Non-venomous Snake Species?
If a person is bitten by a non-venomous snake, they need to disinfect the area and apply a loose bandage until it is healed. All snakes have bacteria in their mouths that can cause infection if the wound is not cleansed.
A rattlesnake bite is a serious incident that needs proper medical treatment. If you follow the right steps, you can get out of danger and back to good health in fairly short order.
Nick Klamecki is a certified Fire and Workplace Safety expert with 15 years experience in product research and testing. He has a degree in Economics from U.C. Davis, is an active outdoorsman and spent years ensuring the safety of special needs children. Nick researches and tests workplace, industrial and safety products and provides advice on their safe use.