What to do if you get bitten by a snake

Sri Lanka has a lot of snakes, many species of which, like cobras, are venomous. There is also a lot of folklore surrounding them and many of them likely originated as tales made up to scare the daylights out of children, like ghost stories. I vividly recall one story that was told about the Russel’s viper. The story was that if anyone in your household encountered a viper and killed it (and killing a poisonous snake was often the chosen method of getting rid of them), then seven other vipers would come to your home and they would hang like a chain from the rafters of the roof if your house did not have a ceiling or from a fixture, each one clasping the tail of the other, until they lowest one reached you where you were sleeping and bit you. Needless to say, that story was enough to give small children sleepless nights.

As children, we did not question the validity of this preposterous theory and the fact that it seemed like it required a lot of coordination and hard work by the vipers just to get at you when they could instead easily have have waited for you by hiding in the grass or under some furniture until you passed by before striking, even allowing for the improbability that there existed some kind of viper committee that organized these revenge attacks and recruited members to carry them out, like some kind of commando snake strike force. There was something so frightening about the idea of snakes slowly lowering themselves down from the roof at night while you slept that it banished any critical inquiry.

There is also a lot of folklore about what to do if you do happen to get by a snake, as this article lays out. First off, it reassuringly says that rather than immediately succumbing to an agonizing end, you are very unlikely to die.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 7,000 and 8,000 people in the U.S. are bitten by venomous snakes each year. And of those who are bitten, only about 5 percent die.

To put that in perspective, around 40,000 people die in car accidents each year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The article says that prompt medical attention is the best response to avoid death.

Stay calm and get to the hospital as soon as possible. The best first aid for snake bites is already in almost everyone’s pocket: a cell phone. If a snake bites you or you are with someone who is, call 911 immediately and let the pros handle it.

While waiting for the EMT heroes to arrive, carefully follow the dispatcher’s instructions. The CDC advises washing the wound with soap and water and keeping the bite area below the heart’s level. 

You can take a picture of the snake for identification purposes, but only if you can do so safely. It’s not necessary, though. As you just learned, getting close to snakes is not the best idea. The pros at the hospital can identify the venom by its effects and choose the proper antivenin based on that.

It turns out that many of the popular remedies that circulate are either useless or harmful. Do not cut the bite and suck out the venom and spit it out. Snake bite kits that do something similar are also to be avoided. Also avoid using a tourniquet to stop the flow of blood. Applying ice to the bite is also not recommended.

The best thing to do is of course to minimize the chances of getting bitten in the first place.

To reduce your risk of snake bite, always wear sturdy boots when you’re in a lot of brush. Never put your hands or feet where you can’t see them. And please don’t mess with snakes. If you go your way, they’ll most likely go theirs. And everyone will come out of the encounter happier and healthier.

I used to take a walk along a path near my home and on two occasions at the same location saw a small rattlesnake cross the path ahead of me. I immediately stopped and they ignored me. But after the second encounter, I decided to avoid that path altogether, since it seemed like it may be a popular crossing point for snakes, and I did not want to accidentally step on one.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    As you just learned, getting close to snakes is not the best idea.

    I’d just like to take a moment to appreciate the genius who wrote that.

    Then another moment to reflect that they’re possibly optimistic thinking their target audience learned anything.

  2. Keith Valachi DDS says

    The best defense against snake bite is distance. We have property in Eastern Oregon that is good W Diamondback habitat. I have nearly stepped on a snake once, have had two rise out of the grass when I was very close, and several give me the warning rattle. In addition to heavy boots, I always wear snake gaiters (ankle to just below the knee) whenever I am tromping about the woods.
    I also carry a snakebite kit that is also used as a bee sting kit, it uses negative pressure to gently remove some of the venom from below the skin. Less venom could mean less tissue damage in the long run.

  3. lochaber says

    was briefly enlisted, and stationed in the Southern California Mojave Desert.

    before any sort of training, we’d always get briefings including local wildlife/environmental dangers (usually stuff about mosquitos, poison oak/ivy, and drinking water…), but at one of them, one of the senior medics stood up, and said something along the lines of “Look, we have to do rotations in the base hospital, and every time some dumbass comes in with a snake bite, they are always drunk off their ass. Just stop fucking with rattle snakes when your drunk.”

    That always stood out to me. probably because later that week, I walked into the duty hut, to find some drunk dumbass who had caught a rattlesnake, and put it on the pool table, and was poking at it…

  4. moonslicer says

    In my youth I had two years teaching at a school in Kenya. One of my more memorable moments was when the groundskeepers killed a snake one day. I asked one of the other teachers on the spot, “That one is poisonous, is it?” He, with his local knowledge and wisdom, answered, “No. That one is deadly.”

  5. Robbo says

    I live in Minnesota. As harsh as our winters are, you’d think we’d be safe from poisonous reptiles.

    You’d be wrong!

    In the southeastern area, along the Mississippi river valley, we not, one, but two venomous snakes. The timber rattlesnake and the eastern massasauga. (Though I guess the massasauga is very rare and may not have a breeding population on our side of the Mississippi)

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