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What not to do if you are bitten by a venomous snake

August 17, 2016
Dr Mattingly and snake

In the popular Steven Spielberg movie “Raiders of the Last Ark,” Indiana Jones mutters, “Snakes, why did it have to be snakes?” – throwing a torch into the Well of Souls before descending into a den of asps with one very agitated cobra staring him in the face.

Look out for copperheads and rattlesnakes

“While you’re not likely to come face to face with a cobra in our neck of the woods, there are poisonous snakes to watch out for locally – mainly copperheads and very few timber rattlesnakes,” said wilderness medicine expert Dr. Benjamin Mattingly from the Emergency Department at Baystate Medical Center.

“The good news is that most North American snakes aren’t dangerous to humans, and if left alone and not agitated are not likely to bite humans,” he added.

Dr. Mattingly has a passion for the wilderness and has traveled to many places throughout the world, including a year in New Zealand as a wilderness medicine instructor. He also enjoys rock climbing, scuba diving, mountaineering, backpacking, skiing and extreme sports. He has a special interest in wilderness injuries and high altitude medicine and oversees the wilderness medicine curriculum for residents at Baystate Medical Center. Mattingly is also founder and owner of Wild Med Adventures, LLC, which teaches wilderness medicine around the world, including Guatemala, Indonesia, Africa, Mexico, New Zealand and Russia.

Venomous animals are responsible for many deaths and injuries worldwide. Snakes account for about 2.5 million venomous bites each year and 125,000 deaths.

Venomous bite symptoms

General symptoms of a venomous snake bite could include the following: bleeding from wound, blurred vision, burning of the skin, convulsions, diarrhea, dizziness, excessive sweating, fainting, fang marks in the skin, fever, low blood pressure, increased thirst, abdominal pain, loss of muscle coordination, nausea and vomiting, numbness and tingling, rapid pulse, tissue death, severe pain, skin discoloration, swelling at the site of bite and weakness.

“Don’t take any chances after being bitten by a poisonous snake. The bite may be painless and the skin may show little trauma from the bite, but that is no reason not to seek medical attention immediately,” said Dr. Mattingly, noting even a bite from a non-venomous snake can be serious for some, leading to an allergic reaction or infection.

But, not everyone needs to go to the emergency room, especially if they are bitten by a garter snake or other non-poisonous snake.

“If you are afraid that you have been bitten by a poisonous snake or you have fang marks to get evaluated, then go to your nearest emergency room. Otherwise, if you know that it is a non-poisonous snake bite, treat it like any other bug or animal bite by cleaning the area well. If there are any signs of an allergic reaction, then you will need to be seen by a physician,” said Dr. Mattingly.

Call 911

He suggests calling 911 or your local emergency number for assistance if you or someone you know has been bitten by a presumed poisonous snake. Also, call ahead to the emergency room so that antivenom can be ready when the person arrives. Antivenom can save a person’s life.

Dr. Mattingly noted there is no need to catch the snake or describe it accurately.

“Telltale signs of a venomous bite are two fang marks. We will know if it is poisonous simply with observation, and there are other guidelines for us as to when to administer antivenom,” said Dr. Mattingly.

He noted that while other parts of the United States are different, for those living in New England, all venomous snake bites from vipers, such as the timber rattlesnake and copperhead, are treated with the same antivenom called CroFab.

Other considerations of what to do or not to do if bitten include:


  • Try not to run or walk. Excessive movement can cause the poisonous venom to move more quickly through the body.
  • If an extremity is bitten, consider minimizing movement of the bitten area by making a splint.
  • Take a photograph of the snake, if possible, but don’t go chasing after it.


  • Do not apply a tourniquet.
  • Do not attempt to cut the bite site or suck out the venom.
  • Do not waste time with commercial suction devices.
  • Despite what you may have read or heard about electric shock therapy, do not apply any type of electric shock to the bite, which is ineffectual and potentially hazardous.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of getting to an emergency room as quickly as possible for treatment, it could be a matter of life and death,” said Dr. Mattingly, who noted children, because of their smaller body size, are at greater risk for death or serious complications from poisonous snake bites, as well as adults with compromised immune systems.

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