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Snake Bites | Overview

Facts about snake bites

Each year in the United States, about 7,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes, mostly during the summer months. Even a bite from a non-venomous snake can cause infection or allergic reaction in some children. The most important thing to remember if your child is bitten by a is to treat all snake bites as if they were venomous and get your child a hospital emergency room as quickly as possible, especially if you are unsure of the exact type of snake responsible for the bite.

With the correct treatment, a severe illness and/or death can be prevented.

What is antivenin?

Antivenin is an antitoxin specific to the venom of a particular animal or insect.

How Boston Children's Hospital approaches snake bites

The Regional Center for Poison Control and Prevention, based at Children's, provides 24-hour treatment and advice to health care professionals and the public on all types of poisoning, including snake bites. The center provides emergency care, follow-up services, seminars on toxicology and poisoning prevention and more. 

Snake Bites | Symptoms and Causes

How to protect your child from snake bites

People who frequent wilderness areas, camp, hike or live in snake-inhabited areas should be aware of the potential dangers posed by venomous snakes. These people should:

  • Know how to identify poisonous snakes — and teach your children, if they are old enough, to do the same.
  • Have access to transportation and medical assistance in case of emergency.

What snakes cause poisonous bites?

Only about 5 percent, or roughly 25 species of snakes in the United States are poisonous. The most common poisonous snakebites are caused by the following snakes:

  • pit vipers - rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouth (water moccasin) snakes
  • coral snakes

Rattlesnake bites cause most of the poisonous bites in the US. Coral snakes cause less than 1 percent of poisonous snakebites.

What are the symptoms of pit viper bites?

The following are the most common symptoms of pit viper bites. However, each child may experience symptoms differently.

Local symptoms may include:

  • bloody wound discharge
  • fang marks in the skin
  • swelling at the site of the bite which may progress to an entire extremity within hours
  • severe localized pain, burning and warmth
  • discoloration, such as redness and bruising
  • enlarged lymph nodes in the area

Systematic symptoms, involving the entire body, may include:

  • nausea or vomiting
  • excessive sweating
  • fever or chills
  • weakness, dizziness, or fainting
  • difficulty swallowing
  • numbness and tingling, especially in the mouth
  • altered mental state
  • generalized bleeding or hemorrhage
  • seizures
  • shock

What are the local symptoms of coral snake bites?

Local symptoms may include:

  • fang marks
  • minimal pain and swelling

What are the systematic symptoms of coral snake bites?

Systemic symptoms may be delayed eight to 24 hours and may include the following:

  • weakness or lethargy
  • numbness and tingling
  • altered mental state
  • flaccid muscles
  • paralysis
  • breathing problems

Preventing snake bites

Some bites, such as those inflicted when your child accidentally steps on a snake in the woods, are nearly impossible to prevent. However, there are precautions that can reduce your child's chances of being bitten by a snake. These include:

  • Teach your child to leave snakes alone. Many people are bitten because they try to kill a snake or get too close to it.

  • Make sure your child stays out of tall grass unless he/she wears thick leather boots and remains on hiking paths as much as possible.

  • Make sure your child keeps his/her hands and feet out of areas he/she cannot see. He/she should not pick up rocks or firewood unless the child is out of a snake's striking distance.

  • Teach your child to be cautious and alert when climbing rocks.

Snake Bites | Treatments

Treatment for poisonous snake bites

Remain calm and reassure your child that you can help. Your child's physician will determine specific treatment for a snake bite.

Initial treatment includes:

  • Move your child to a nearby safe area, away from the snake.
  • Call for emergency assistance immediately. Antivenin should be given within four hours when possible. It is not usually effective if given more than 12 hours after the bite.

While waiting for emergency assistance:

  • Monitor your child's heart rate and breathing.
  • Have your child lie down, rest, and keep calm.
  • Wash the bite with soap and water.
  • Keep him warm. Avoid cooling the area to prevent further tissue damage.
  • Remove all rings, watches, and constrictive clothing in case of swelling.
  • Loosely immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.
  • Don't give your child anything to eat or drink.
  • Monitor heart rate and breathing.

If you are unable to reach medical care quickly

If you cannot reach medical care within 30 minutes, the American Red Cross recommends:

  • Applying a bandage, wrapped two to four inches above your child's bite, to help slow the venom. This should not cut off the flow of blood from a vein or artery - the band should be loose enough to slip a finger under it.

  • noting the time of the bite so that it can be reported to an emergency room physician if needed.

  • if possible, trying to remember to draw a circle around the affected area and mark the time of the bite and the initial reaction. If you are able, redraw the circle around the site of injury marking the progression of time.

  • if possible, noting what the snake looks like, its size, and the type of snake, in order to inform the emergency room staff.

  • not applying a tourniquet.

Hospital treatment

Hospital treatment may include the use of antivenin (an antidote to snake venom). Treatment may also include lab work, pain or sedation medications, tetanus booster, antibiotics and supportive care.

Snake Bites | Programs & Services