Snake Bite (cont.)

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How is a venomous snake bite diagnosed?

Any snake bite needs emergency evaluation. Identification of fang or bite marks is done, even if the snake is non-venomous, to determine local trauma or tissue damage at the site of the bite. Identification of the snake type by description or picture, along with the circumstances of the bite and the surrounding environment usually provides the health care professional a working diagnosis. For example, a snake bite occurring in dry west Texas is likely a rattlesnake bite, while a snake bite in a swampy area of the US is likely a water moccasin. A zookeeper or private snake owner/collector who is bitten will likely know the exact type of snake that caused the bite or toxic spray (spitting cobras).

What is the treatment for a venomous snake bite?

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There are two phases in the treatment of snake bites.

  1. The emergency treatment on site and during transport to an appropriate health care facility.
  2. Tthe health care facility stabilizes the patient, administers antivenin if deemed necessary, and provides supportive treatment.

Phase one of snake bite treatment

In the past there have been many home remedies and treatments, along with snake bite kits and other treatment methods, many of which have been shown to make the effects of the snake bite worse. Consequently, the CDC has issued guidelines, used after the threat of additional bites to the patient or others is eliminated, about what to DO and what NOT TO DO if a snakebite occurs. The following are the recommendations made by the CDC:

  • Seek medical attention as soon as possible (dial 911 or call local Emergency Medical Services)
  • Try to remember the color and shape of the snake, which can help with identification and treatment of the snake bite.
  • Keep still and calm. This can slow down the spread of venom.
  • Inform your supervisor (if the bite occurs at work).
  • Apply first aid if you cannot get to the hospital right away.
    • Lay or sit down with the bite below the level of the heart.
    • Wash the bite with soap and water.
    • Cover the bite with a clean, dry dressing.

Do NOT do any of the following:

  • Do not pick up the snake or try to trap it.
  • Do not wait for symptoms to appear if bitten, rather seek immediate medical attention.
  • Do not apply a tourniquet.
  • Do not slash the wound with a knife.
  • Do not suck out the venom.
  • Do not apply ice or immerse the wound in water.
  • Do not drink alcohol as a painkiller.
  • Do not drink caffeinated beverages.

Not included in the CDC recommendation is the bite of the Australian elapid snake, also termed a sea snake, which is emergently treated with a pressure bandage at the bite site with splinting and extremity immobilization. Others suggest no use of electric shocks for any snake bite.

Phase two of snake bite treatment

The second phase of treatment consists of stabilization and supportive care, and when medically indicated, administration of antitoxin (antivenin) specific for the snake species and a tetanus booster vaccine. A good practice is to call your local poison control center or the national Poison Help Line (1-800-222-1222), and also to consult a toxicologist and a surgeon to help care for the patient. Certain patients may require surgical treatment and admission to the hospital.

The treatment of non-venomous snake bites includes local wound care at the site of the bite, removing snake teeth if left in the bite site, attending to any trauma at the bite site, and a tetanus booster if needed. Some wounds may become infected and require additional treatment with antibiotics.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/5/2013

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