Snake Bites: 3 things I learned from the Movies

We’ve all seen snake bites in the movies right? When someone gets bitten by a snake, apply a tourniquet, then cut or bite the wound open and suck out the venom. Now you may have your own reasons for getting your lips on your casualty, but that’s nothing to do with correct first aid treatment…… Why not? Glad you asked!

First, let’s just remind you that we’re a BC (Canada) based training company. So when we’re talking about first aid for snakebites, we’re talking about Rattlesnakes, especially the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake. Still, you can take this as good advice for all bites, unless you’ve been taught differently!
Distribution of rattlesnakes in BC

Distribution map for rattlesnakes in BC [BC Ministry of Environment]

Snake Bites: Why not cut them open?

Partly because you’re wasting your time, and mostly because of the risk of infection. Cutting a snake bite is a popular myth. Still, it’s not actually part of the first aid for snakebites. Although you can buy Snake Bite Kits at camping stores and even online. We see one today for just $4.99 (bargain!). The kit contains a scalpel and instructions – presumably more detailed than ‘cut here’.

The problem is that snake venom is intended to spread through the rat/bird/hand quickly. In nature when the snake bites its prey, it wants to eat. It doesn’t want to wait an hour for the snake venom to work. So unless you and the casualty are in the mood for a little amputation, you probably won’t be able to isolate the snake venom effectively.

Snake bite kit

Snake bite kit with scalpel – don’t use it!

Then of course you have the issue of a dirty wound (snakes don’t brush twice a day) into which you’re going to stick a (possibly) clean blade so you can make the hole bigger. That way you can remove the natural protection (intact skin) and really spread the infection over a wide area. Oops. I seem to remember the 3 Ps of First Aid are about making things better, not worse.

Oh yes, we should also mention that about 20-25% of bites are ‘dry’ – they don’t result in any venom being injected anyway. So your knife-wielding antics were just plain dangerous. First aid for snakebites does NOT involve cutting anything.

Snake Bites: Why not suck out the snake venom?

See the bit above about the rapid spread of venom through your hand? That’s why not.

Oh, and you probably won’t get it all out.

And if you have any success getting anything out, you’ll have a mouth full of snake venom. Here in BC, rattlesnake venom is designed to start digesting meat on contact. Usually that meat is a rodent, but your tongue will do fine. You should still be able to hiss after your tongue has dissolved though.

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake, Crotalus o. oreganus

Snake Bites: Why not use a tourniquet?

Here’s the thing. If the snake bite does inject any venom, that venom is designed to dissolve tissue. It was described to me as ‘like turning a mouse into mouse-jello’. Can you imagine what happens when a powerful ’tissue dissolving venom’ is kept very well contained within your finger, or your kid’s hand, by a tourniquet. That’s right – it does what it’s designed to do and someone’s going to need a surgeon.

And here’s the other, bigger problem. If you do apply a tourniquet effectively (to anything, ever) then you’ll cut off the blood supply to the whole hand/arm/foot/whatever. Which means the rest of the hand is at risk for gangrene (best get that surgeon on speed-dial). That’s why we never use them in first aid courses.

Cowboy

Probably best not take his treatment advice

First Aid for Snakebites

Ok, so now we’ve lost the John Wayne stuff, what is the actual first aid for snakebites?

1. Keep everyone calm! Remember ‘danger’ first – make sure people and snake are well separated and no-one is at risk from another bite. (No, the hospital does not want you to catch the snake and bring it in.)

2. Get EMS called. It’s always worth having the bitten person checked over at hospital.

3. Remover any restrictive clothing in the area, including rings, watches, etc. See the point above about tourniquets

4. Clean the wound and treat as usual for minor wounds

5. Keep the person at rest, with bite lower than their heart.

Finally….

Just don’t get bitten! Unlike in the movies, snakes can’t actually fly, aren’t know for ganging up and ambushing you in a confined space and would generally rather run away and hide. That said, about 7,000 to 8,000 people get bitten each year in North America. Most of them are male, many are young and many are drunk.

Sign warning of rattlesnakes

Yes – we were there!

Try some of these tips:

1. Avoid the snake/alcohol/bravado combination

2. Keep eyes & ears open. Over half the people who get bitten saw the snake but ignored it.

3. Stay on marked trails in snake Country. You’ll often see warning signs in more populated/popular areas.

4. Dress appropriately – boots, legs covered, etc.

5. Look before you step over logs, rocks, etc.

6. Don’t assume it isn’t a rattlesnake if it has no rattle. They can loose them!

Snake bites female model

The only reason we could find for sucking where a snake has bitten!

About Tony Howarth

Tony is a First Aid & CPR Instructor Trainer with Sea 2 Sky Safety Training Services and the company founder. Tony started with the British Red Cross in 1994. Has acted as first aid attendant for hundreds of events & treated many hundreds of people as a result. He is experienced in training a wide range of courses. He previously worked as an ambulance attendant with the British Red Cross. He is now in BC as a first aid instructor, and an instructor trainer (one who trains others to become instructors) Finally, Tony works at UBC Hospital as a pharmacist when not busy training safety
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One Response to Snake Bites: 3 things I learned from the Movies

  1. Finally a voice if wisdom! Thank you for your advice!

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