Snake Bite (Snakebite)

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Steven Doerr, MD
    Steven Doerr, MD

    Steven Doerr, MD

    Steven Doerr, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Doerr received his undergraduate degree in Spanish from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated with his Medical Degree from the University Of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado in 1998 and completed his residency training in Emergency Medicine from Denver Health Medical Center in Denver, Colorado in 2002, where he also served as Chief Resident.

  • Medical Editor: Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP
    Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP

    Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP

    Dr. Balentine received his undergraduate degree from McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He attended medical school at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine graduating in1983. He completed his internship at St. Joseph's Hospital in Philadelphia and his Emergency Medicine residency at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx, where he served as chief resident.

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What are the symptoms of a venomous snake bite?

The symptoms of a venomous snakebite depend on the type of toxin(s) secreted into the bite or puncture wound, and in part, on how much toxin is present in the tissue. The types of symptoms produced can be grouped into four groups:

  • Cardiotoxins: act on heart tissue
  • Neurotoxins: act on nervous system tissue
  • Cytotoxins: act on tissue at the site of the bite or on tissue that directly absorbs the toxin
  • Hemotoxins: act on the blood coagulation system and may cause internal bleeding

Some toxins may cause more than one of these effects. Because of the various symptoms that can occur with venomous snake bites, the potential signs and symptoms to look for, as listed by the CDC include the following:

  • A pair of puncture marks at the wound
  • Redness and swelling around the bite
  • Severe pain at the site of the bite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Labored breathing (in extreme cases, breathing may stop altogether)
  • Disturbed vision
  • Increased salivation and sweating
  • Numbness or tingling around the face and/or limbs

Symptoms from these toxins are somewhat variable and may occur quickly or they may be delayed for hours, depending on the toxin type and the amount absorbed. In general, small children are more vulnerable to snake bites because the relative larger amount of toxin absorbed in relation to their smaller body size can make the toxin effect more potent.

Identification of the snake helps emergency health care professionals to both anticipate the potential symptoms, and it allows for more rapid and appropriate treatment of the venomous snake bite. A detailed description of the snake, a picture of the snake, or the snake itself (ideally dead!) will help identify the type of snake and the type of toxin. Time should not be wasted, however, in transporting the patient to an appropriate health care facility and do not put others in jeopardy of getting bitten.

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).

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/30/2015

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