What Are Snake Bites?

  • Zeina Al-Ait Master's degree, Computer Software Engineering, Lebanese University - Faculty of Sciences

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All snakes are carnivores, meaning their diet consists entirely of meat. While they may appear similar in size and shape, they vary greatly in their patterns, scales, fangs, and colours. The shedding of their skin, a phenomenon commonly seen in cartoons, is indeed a real aspect of their biology. Many people fear snakes due to their appearance and the potential danger of their bites. So, why do snakes bite, and what exactly happens when they do? And is it dangerous? 

All these questions will be addressed; continue reading to find out.

Snakes

Snakes, numbering over 3000 species, inhabit various parts of the world, except for certain regions such as Antarctica, Iceland, Ireland, Greenland, and New Zealand.1

Ophidiophobia

Certain individuals can experience a phobia known as Ophidiophobia, which specifically involves an intense fear of snakes. This fear can lead to panic attacks, high anxiety levels, and extreme precautions, such as avoiding outdoor activities or carefully selecting living locations to steer clear of encounters with snakes.2

Pets

On the contrary, other people do enjoy snakes and like to keep them at home! Where it is advised to opt for snakes that are bred in captivity rather than those captured in the wild, as wild-caught snakes can be difficult to handle.3 Some of the best pet choices are corn snakes, ball pythons, green snakes, sand boas, and western hognose snakes.3

Non-venomous snakes

Yes, it’s true! Not all snakes are venomous and dangerous. Some snakes that might look scary are harmless. Venomous snakes have specialised fangs designed to inject venom into their prey or predators. These fangs are hinged and can be folded back against the roof of the snake’s mouth when not in use. On the other hand, non-venomous snakes cannot inject venom because they lack fangs. However, some non-venomous snakes have teeth positioned along their gums that can cause minor effects on your skin.

Here are some non-venomous snakes:

  • Green snakes
  • Rat snakes
  • Python snakes
  • Indigo snakes
  • Kingsnake

Venomous snakes

Venomous snakes have special glands that make potent venom, a mix of proteins and enzymes. They use this venom to hunt, defend themselves, or digest food. When they bite, they inject this venom, which can be harmful to humans. Different venomous snakes have different kinds of venom, affecting the nervous system or causing cell damage and blood problems. Well-known venomous snakes include cobras and rattlesnakes. It’s important to be cautious around these snakes and know how to stay safe if you encounter one.

Snake bites

Snakes, like other animals and reptiles, primarily live to hunt, especially if they are carnivorous. They need to find food to eat and survive. Snakes bite for either hunting or self-protection purposes.4 However, the diverse range of snakes, encompassing both venomous and non-venomous species, means that each bite can be different.

Dry bites

Dry bites happen when a snake bites but doesn’t inject any venom. This commonly occurs with non-venomous snakes. In other words, the snake doesn’t release any harmful substance when it bites.

Venomous bites

Venomous bites are significantly more hazardous. They happen when a snake injects venom while biting. Different snakes have different kinds of venom. The main categories are:

Cytotoxins

Cyto means cells, and cytotoxicity means a harmful effect on cell function. This activity can cause swelling, intense blisters, cell death, and tissue damage.5 These are some snakes that have cytotoxic venom: Rattlesnakes, saw-scaled vipers, bushmaster, lancehead vipers, and of course cobras. In cobra venom, these cytotoxins make up a significant portion, ranging from 40% to 70%.6

Haemorrhaging

Hemorrhagic SVMPs in snake venom work by breaking down substances in the capillary basement membrane.7 This weakens the capillary walls, making them susceptible to blood circulation pressure. As a result, the walls can rupture, leading to leakage of blood.7 The venoms that are commonly hemotoxic include those of saw-scaled (carpet) vipers, Levantine vipers, and the majority of pit vipers.8 

Anti-clotting agents

Certain proteins in snake venom, called C-type lectin-related proteins, inhibit blood clotting factors FIX and FX.9 They bind to these factors strongly, in nanomolar and subnanomolar affinities, preventing blood coagulation.9

Neurotoxins

Typically, Elapidae snakes produce venoms that target the nervous system, causing neurotoxic effects.8 The venom found in kraits, mambas, and the majority of cobras represents common instances of neurotoxic venoms.8 These toxins cause the main symptoms of envenomation and can lead to the victim’s death.8 They target specific molecules involved in nerve signal transmission. For instance, dendrotoxins focus on the presynaptic voltage-dependent potassium ion channels.10

Myotoxins

Myotoxins are natural components in venom that, when injected into animals, damage muscles irreversibly.11 They are usually small proteins or peptides.11

Recognizing these venom types is crucial for identifying snake species during bites and ensuring appropriate medical intervention and treatment with specific antivenom.

Symptoms of snake bite

Symptoms of a snake bite can vary depending on the specific snake but may include:

  • Bite marks at the site
  • Swelling, redness, bruising, or bleeding around the affected area
  • Intense pain and tenderness where the bite occurred
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhoea
  • Difficulty breathing, which can become severe and may even stop completely
  • Rapid heartbeat, weak pulse, and low blood pressure
  • Blurred vision
  • Unusual tastes such as metallic, mint, or rubber in the mouth
  • Excessive salivation and sweating
  • Numbness or tingling in the face and/or limbs
  • Muscle twitching.12

First aid

In the event of a venomous snake bite, it is crucial to immediately dial 911 or your local emergency number, especially if you notice changes in the bitten area, such as swelling, discolouration, or pain. Many emergency rooms stock antivenom drugs, which can be beneficial in such situations.

While waiting for medical assistance, consider taking the following precautions:

  1. Create Distance: Move away from the snake and avoid any further interaction
  2. Remain Calm: Stay still and keep calm to slow down the spread of venom
  3. Loosen Attire: Remove any tight clothing, jewellery, or watches near the bite site before swelling occurs
  4. Adopt a Comfortable Position: Sit or lie down in a relaxed position, ensuring the bite area is at rest
  5. Clean and Cover: Wash the bite gently with soap and water. Cover it loosely with a clean, dry bandage.13

It’s essential to note the following precautions:

  • Avoid Tourniquets and Ice: Refrain from using tourniquets or applying ice to the bite area
  • Do Not Cut or Suck the Bite: Avoid attempting to cut the bite area or suction out the venom.
  • Refrain from Caffeine or Alcohol: Do not consume caffeine or alcohol, as these substances can heighten the risk of bleeding.
  • Avoid Pain Relievers: Resist the urge to take pain-relieving medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium, as they can increase the risk of bleeding.13

Do not try to capture the snake. Instead, try to recall its colour and shape for description purposes. If possible, take a photograph of the snake from a safe distance, as this information will be helpful for medical treatment.13

Summary

Encountering a snake bite can be terrifying, but being prepared can make a significant difference. If bitten, it’s crucial to call for help immediately by dialling 911. Stay calm and gently move away from the snake, refraining from any attempts to capture it. Your safety should always be the priority. Interestingly, some people have a fascination with snakes and keep them as pets, highlighting the diverse perspectives on these creatures. While some find them intriguing, others fear them deeply. Understanding snake bites involves knowing the different types of toxins involved, such as neurotoxins affecting the nervous system and hemotoxins causing blood problems. In case of a bite, seeking immediate medical assistance is essential. Describing the snake’s appearance to medical professionals can significantly assist in providing the appropriate treatment, ensuring a safer and swifter recovery.

FAQs 

Q1: How do I identify if a snake is venomous? 

Venomous snakes often have triangular heads, slit-shaped pupils, and a heat-sensing pit between the eye and nostril. However, it’s best to maintain a safe distance from all snakes to avoid potential danger.

Q2: Can snake bites be fatal? 

Yes, some snake bites, especially from venomous species, can be fatal without prompt medical treatment. It’s crucial to seek medical help immediately after a snake bite.

Q3: How can I prevent snake bites? 

Wear appropriate footwear and clothing when in snake-prone areas. Avoid reaching into places where you can’t see, and be cautious when stepping over rocks or logs, as snakes might be hiding there.

Q4: How can I identify a non-venomous snake? 

Non-venomous snakes often have round pupils, lack heat-sensing pits, and harmless bite marks if they bite at all. Educate yourself about local snake species to distinguish between venomous and non-venomous ones.

Q5: What should I do if I see a snake in my home? 

If you find a snake in your home, keep a safe distance, close off the room, and contact animal control or a professional snake removal service. Do not attempt to handle it yourself.

Q6: How long do I have to get medical help after a snake bite? 

Time is crucial. Seek medical assistance immediately after a snake bite, preferably within the first hour, as prompt treatment can significantly improve outcomes.

Remember, these answers are general guidelines. For personalised and accurate information, always consult medical professionals or animal experts.

References 

  1. Animals [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2023 Oct 19]. Snakes, facts and information. Available from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles/facts/snakes-1
  2. Cleveland Clinic [Internet]. [cited 2023 Oct 19]. Ophidophobia (Fear of snakes): causes, symptoms & treatment. Available from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22519-ophidiophobia-fear-of-snakes
  3. Davies E. British Pet Insurance. 2019 [cited 2023 Oct 19]. 5 popular snake breeds for beginners. Available from: https://britishpetinsurance.co.uk/5-popular-snake-breeds-for-beginners/
  4. Cleveland Clinic [Internet]. [cited 2023 Oct 19]. Snake bite: symptoms, causes, diagnosis & treatment. Available from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15647-snake-bites
  5. Royte L, Sawarkar A. Snake bite — cytotoxic effects of snake venom: a rare clinical image. Pan Afr Med J [Internet]. 2023 Feb 1 [cited 2023 Oct 19];44:61. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10175653/
  6. Gasanov SE, Dagda RK, Rael ED. Snake venom cytotoxins, phospholipase a2s, and zn2+-dependent metalloproteinases: mechanisms of action and pharmacological relevance. J Clin Toxicol [Internet]. 2014 Jan 25 [cited 2023 Oct 19];4(1):1000181. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4060629/
  7. Gutiérrez J, Escalante T, Rucavado A, Herrera C. Hemorrhage caused by snake venom metalloproteinases: a journey of discovery and understanding. Toxins [Internet]. 2016 Mar 26 [cited 2023 Oct 20];8(4):93. Available from: http://www.mdpi.com/2072-6651/8/4/93
  8. Osipov A, Utkin Y. What are the neurotoxins in hemotoxic snake venoms? Int J Mol Sci [Internet]. 2023 Feb 2 [cited 2023 Oct 20];24(3):2919. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9917609/
  9. Kini RM. Anticoagulant proteins from snake venoms: structure, function and mechanism. Biochem J [Internet]. 2006 Aug 1 [cited 2023 Oct 20];397(Pt 3):377–87. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1533313/
  10. Harvey AL, Robertson B. Dendrotoxins: structure-activity relationships and effects on potassium ion channels. Curr Med Chem. 2004 Dec;11(23):3065–72.
  11. Lomonte B, Angulo Y, Calderón L. An overview of lysine-49 phospholipase A2 myotoxins from crotalid snake venoms and their structural determinants of myotoxic action. Toxicon [Internet]. 2003 Dec 1 [cited 2023 Oct 20];42(8):885–901. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0041010103003283
  12. Venomous snake bites: symptoms & first aid | niosh | cdc [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2023 Oct 20]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/snakes/symptoms.html
  13. Mayo Clinic [Internet]. [cited 2023 Oct 20]. Snakebites: First aid. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-snake-bites/basics/art-20056681

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Zeina Al-Ait

Master's degree, Computer Software Engineering, Lebanese University - Faculty of Sciences

Zeina Al-Ait is a computer science graduate with expertise in health, particularly diabetes. She has authored several articles on this subject, emphasizing diabetes awareness and challenging conventional health perspectives. Zeina is currently pursuing studies in bioinformatics to expand her knowledge in the field.

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