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Survival Myth: You Should Suck Poison from a Snake Bite

October 29, 2012

First Aid, Survival Myths

Treating a snakebite

You’ve probably seen an old western movie at some point where some unsuspecting person is walking through rocky terrain. He steps over some obstacle and then it happens: a fierce strike from a poisonous snake. The man grimaces and falls to the ground. Satisfied, the snake slithers off.

What happens next? The man’s friend quickly steps in, cuts an X into bitten area, and heroically suck the venom out of the man’s leg, spitting it to one side.  A sense of calm relief spreads across the victim’ face. He may have some tough hours ahead, but he knows he’ll be just fine. Thanks to the quick actions of his friends.

It makes for a good scene in the western, but in real life it doesn’t really work that way.

Here in the real world, snake bites are far less common than in the movies. But they still happen and we must be prepared to handle the situation should it arise.

According to the CDC, there are approximately 7,500 poisonous snake bite reported each year in the United States. Yet on average only 5 people die annually from the bites. That’s 0.07%. So you’re chances of surviving a poisonous snake bite are very good, over 99.93%. It may not be pleasant but you’ll almost always survive.

Most poisonous snake bites in the U.S are from pit vipers such as rattlesnakes and copperheads. The venom from these snakes are hemotoxic, meaning it causes damage to the tissue and blood.

Bites from mature adult vipers are often just “dry bites” where the snake doesn’t inject venom into the victim. It just wants to be left alone and tries to convince you of that with a warning strike. Younger snakes cannot control the amount of venom and thus a bite from a immature poisonous snake usually has venom.

What Not to Do

There are a lot of myths and debunked practices around snake bites. Here are some:

  • Cutting & sucking. Cutting and sucking a snake bite wound has been proven to be ineffective. In fact, it can actually be more damaging since you are introducing germs that can cause infections into an already compromised area. Additionally the human mouth is full of germs.
  • Applying a tourniquet. At one point, medical professionals believed that it was a good idea to try to slow the spread of the poison by applying a tourniquet just above the infected area. The dangers outweigh any potential benefit of this treatment. Avoid tourniquets.
  • Hunt down the snake. Believe it or not, a few people recommend killing the snake and bringing it with you when you seek medical treatment. This wastes time and gets your heart pumping, both of which you should avoid.
  • Applying ice. Do not apply ice to the affected area.
  • Have a shot of whiskey. Drinking alcohol to take the edge off or to help with the pain is not a good idea.

How to Treat Poisonous Snake Bites

Ok, so what should you do when you are bitten by a poisonous snake?

  1. Remain calm. That’s easier said than done. Getting excite and running about only causes your heart to race and adrenaline to flow and causes the poison to spread more rapidly.
  2. Remove constricting items. If you are bitten on the hand, remove rings, watches and bracelets that could restrict blood flow should swelling occur.
  3. Allow the wound to bleed. Many snakes have anticoagulants so blood will flow for a little while. That’s ok; let the blood carry germs and any venom near the surface out of the body. Of course don’t allow this to go on too long.
  4. Clean and cover the wound. Snake bites are, in effect, a puncture wound so you should clean them with soap and water to help prevent infection.
  5. Optionally apply compression. Some medical guidance recommends wrapping the extremity with an Aces bandage to help reduce swelling and slow the blood flow back toward to the heart. The jury is still out on the benefits of this treatment.
  6. Optionally use a suction kit. Again, there is little evidence that a suction kit actually works, but it won’t hurt as long as you don’t cut the bitten area as older kits suggested. If you have one that recommends that, toss it and get a newer kit.
  7. Keep the bitten area below the heart. Use gravity to slow the poison’s movement toward the heart.
  8. Monitor vital signs. Keep an eye of the victim and watch for signs of shock.
  9. Seek medical attention. Get the victim to the hospital as soon a possible, if possible.

The Best Cure

As with many things, the best cure is prevention. Don’t go near poisonous snakes if you see them. Just back away slowly.

Some studies have found that the overwhelming majority of snake bites occur as a result of an intentional approach by the soon-to-be victim. It’s no surprise that many of the victims have been drinking alcohol just prior to incident.

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7 Comments on “Survival Myth: You Should Suck Poison from a Snake Bite”

  1. Stephen Says:

    Sorry but the CDC is the last place I would go for accurate information, I grew up in the jungle in the southern part of Mexico where snake bites were often fatal, I have seen people dead from snake bite when I was a kid. While using your mouth as a suction I would agree is a bad idea, the jury is still out on the suction device. Any removal of venom even if it is a small amount and the bite is close to the skin and not in deep tissue muscle will definitely help in removal of some of the venom. Deep muscle bites will be harder to remove venom by any suction device but some is better than none. They current medical advice says to call 911 which in a lot of cases is not possible as we all know how literally useless most of our cellphones are away from the city, so anything you can do is better than nothing if done properly so get informed and also dont use a tourniquet unless you know how to properly use one as you could damage your limb even more if hot used properly.

    Reply

    • Joe Says:

      Ha, yes, I used the statistics from the CDC, but I verified them as best I could with other sources. The highest I found was an average of 12 deaths per year from poisonous snake bites going back to the early 1980’s. Still relatively low considering there are 7,000 to 8,000 bites per year.

      As for the medical recommendations, that’s an amalgamation of information I’ve gathered over the years, research from a wide variety of sources on the internet, and talking with medical practitioners.

      The effectiveness of compression and non-lancing suction kits are debatable.

      Thanks for the comment, Stephen.

      Reply

  2. Officer Bacon Says:

    The 1970 army survival guide said cut a X into the wound, but never said suck it out. Phanks 4 da cleer up.

    Reply

  3. Zaire Says:

    Hmm…..interesting…

    Reply

  4. Jonathan Scaife Says:

    a lot of the north American pit vipers, rattlers and other such poisonous snakes have period during the year in which their bites are “dry” having little or no venom. The snake itself can control this function to perform a test bite in which they try to see if their prey is alive still. However, their young can not control this function, so their bite will almost always be poisonous.

    Reply

  5. Lena Says:

    Venomous venomous venomous. NOT poisonous. Sorry, as a biologist this is one of my biggest pet peeves! Here’s a cute cartoon to explain the difference (:

    http://io9.com/venomous-vs-poisonous-explained-with-adorable-talk-1607387829

    Reply

    • Annie Says:

      Thank you Lena! I was cringing through this whole article.

      I hate to say it, but it can make people question how knowledgeable you are and how accurate your information is when you repeatedly use incorrect terminology like that.

      There are no poisonous reptiles. If it’s a reptile (which snakes obviously are) it cannot be poisonous. Many species of snakes are, however, quite venomous.
      That’s why you’re given ‘anti-venom’ or ‘antivenin’ (two terms for the same thing) for dangerous snake, spider, scorpion, or jellyfish bites/stings. All of those animals produce venom, which is injected in to their victim, rather than poison.

      Reply

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