Up to 7000 snakebites are reported in the USA every year, and there are believed to be many more that go unreported. Worldwide, snakebite is a frequent presentation to medical centres. Fortunately, the risk of death from a snakebite is less than 1 in 5000 with modern medical care. Proper first aid at the scene is extremely important and all those living or holidaying in areas with a high frequency of snakebites should be aware of simple measures that can save limbs and lives.
Most snakebites are from non-venomous species. Even those bites that are from poisonous snakes are rarely fatal, especially with proper first-aid and prompt hospital care. If you are looking after a person who has been bitten, reassure the patient and stay calm.
Bandage the wound and immobilise. Most bites occur on an extremity - hand or foot - and fairly tight bandages, if available, should be applied directly over the wound. Wrap up the arm towards the heart, then back down until the whole limb is covered. Immobilise the limb with a splint. Movement in muscles pumps blood, lymph, and potentially venom towards the body. In the unusual circumstance of being bitten on the body, apply firm pressure with a pad on the area and seek prompt medical care.
Do not attempt to suck out the venom. Do not make a cut over the area or wash the wound - remaining venom on the skin is safe and can be tested to identify it.
Try to identify the snake. If it is possible to catch it safely then this can be very useful, but as most snakebites are caused by misguided handling attempts this is not recommended unless the handler is properly trained. Equally, killing the snake is not recommended (not least for conservation reasons) and is rarely necessary, though if a corpse is available this can assist identification. The main points to note are:
- Location when bitten
- Pattern and colour
- Presence of a rattle
Seek medical care in a proper facility. Warn them you are coming if possible. Antivenin should not be given in the field, and significant envenomations may require resuscitation.
Do not take off the bandage. There may be significant discomfort but release of pressure will lead to a rush of venom from the limb and may cause shock.