There is much controversy over what first aid advice to follow in the event of a venomous snake bite… the very first one I’ll get out of the way is… venoms are toxic via being injected into tissues otherwise protected by the skin surface, and not by being swallowed or touched; whereas poisons are toxic regardless of how they enter the bloodstream (whether via being injected into tissues, absorbed into the skin, breathed, or swallowed). It is an important distinction: if it is toxic because you bit it… it is poisonous, whereas if it is toxic because it bit you… it is venomous.
Interestingly, there is a genus of rear-fanged venomous snakes that can deliver a lethal bite, that includes species whom for which to say are poisonous is not a misnomer… they are both poisonous and venomous. The genus is Rhabdophis, and in addition to their venomous bite, certain species secrete a poison from the neck when feeling threatened. They do not entirely produce the poison themselves, but acquire it from eating poisonous toads, the poison of which is stored in specially adapted glands (nuchal glands) in the snake’s neck. As most predators go for the neck, when attacked, the snake arches its neck making it easier for the predator to get poison in its mouth, thus teaching the predator to decide on a different meal choice in the future.
Even so, the difference between a venom and a poison may yet be a semantic difference only, because to really differentiate a poison from a venom, we might have to consider transdermal toxic effects of certain plants which are considered to be poisons… as venoms if they are only toxic if they are injected into or underneath the skin; consider the penetrating hairs of Stinging Nettle, which really isn’t poisonous at all as its stinging hairs only deliver an irritant and when the hairs are destroyed by cooking the plant is completely edible since the delivery system is removed. This kind of hair-splitting semantic argument is not the point of this article, but I mention it because I want to stress that when covering the topic of venomous snakebite, there are many seemingly insignificant or minute factual points that anyone preparing to deal with snakebite should be aware of.
More to the point, there seems to be quite a bit of controversy concerning snake venoms, for example… that snake venom is a highly specialized form of saliva, when in fact, snake venoms evolved from a diversity of tissues and have equally diverse activities. While most of the proteins in snake venom are evolved forms of normal body proteins, some venom proteins evolved from salivary proteins. But the most dangerous assumptive controversy of all concerning snake venom is what to do if someone is bit.
The controversy is complicated even further because different species of venomous snakes have different types of venom with different effects. The venom cocktail varies from species to species, and may even vary significantly among individual snakes. Different snakes will inject different quantities of venom. There are species in certain regions that are attested by the locals to be only mildly toxic and non-lethal, but when the venom of these snakes was laboratory tested for lethality, it was discovered that in the amounts injected into its prey… it would be very deadly to humans.
Venom output may vary according to:
- Season… during the warmer months the output of venom is usually more than in the cooler months when the venom is often more viscous.
- Size of snake… larger snakes can… and do… inject more venom.
- Age of snake… the venom of most newborn and very young rattlesnake species that have predominantly proteolytic venom is more toxic than the venom of older rattlesnakes of those species, so less output is required. Whereas, for some species of rattlesnake that produce highly neurotoxic venom, toxicity levels remain the same as the snake becomes larger.
- Shedding… while shedding, snakes are partially blind and tend to be more irritable, and during that time and they often inject more venom.
- Reason for bite… for example, rattlesnakes usually will inject more venom into defensive bites than they will into predatory bites, but defensive bites are more often dry compared to predatory bites.
- Consecutive bites… for example, Crotalus helleri (Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes) will usually inject a declining amount of venom into three consecutive defensive bites, whereas Agkistrodon piscivorus (Cottonmouths) will usually inject an increasing amount of venom into three consecutive bites.
Keep in mind that many people have survived venomous snakebites… mostly because they stayed calm enough to quickly get to a hospital and receive antivenin. It has been said that the best first aid kit for snakebite consists of car keys and the means to call ahead so the hospital can prepare for the bite victim’s arrival. But… as with all emergency medical concerns, prevention is always the best medicine.
When in snake country… wear snakebite-proof boots of some kind, whether boots specifically made to be snakebite-proof or thick leather boots (leather of at least 10 ounce uniform thickness)… keep in mind though that the larger the snake, the easier it will be to bite through your standard leather boot… or above it! So if you do not wear boots that are specifically intended to be snakebite-proof, be sure to wear snakebite-proof gaiters, or better yet, chaps. The safest combination offering the most complete coverage would of course be a pair of snakebite-proof boots and snakebite-proof chaps.
Remain aware of every step you take and where you put your hands… carry a long stick to “beat the brush” in front of you with as you walk… and walk slowly. Most snakes would rather get out of your way if you let them… so let them. Don’t sit on a log or rock until you know that there is no venomous snake resting behind or underneath.
Do some research about the area where you are or plan to be. Knowing what kinds of snakes live in the area and what their habits are can be a life saver… awareness of your surroundings is the best first step… but if someone does get bit, it can be of great benefit to be able to positively identify for the hospital what species of snake a bite was from without having to catch or kill the snake… which only creates risk of another bite (even if the snake is dead) and wastes precious time. There are different antivenins as well as different first aid advice concerning different venoms, so be able to quickly identify a venomous snake at a glance and know which venom type it delivers and any unique first aid advice concerning it. I will discuss the differences between venomous snake species in the next article in this series, Venomous Snake Bite… Part 2; and I will discuss the different venom types and first aid advice in Venomous Snake Bite… Part 3.
I hate almost hate to ask this, but… have you ever been bit by a… gulp… venomous snake?
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