by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Reader Barbara writes:

One of the obvious dangers of living in the wilderness is being bitten by a snake. What can we do for a snake bite when there is no medical care available—assuming the snake is poisonous? Comfort or treatment suggestions?

Eastern cottonmouth snake

A venomous Eastern cottonmouth snake hanging out in South Carolina.

Yes, Barbara, I have some suggestions. But first things first: You have to get bitten before you need treatment. The thing is, most snake bites happen when people take unsafe risks. They almost act like they want to be bitten. Hmmm … come to think of it, considering you Twilight and True Blood fans … free tattoo?

Well, let me tell you, these fang marks cause quite a different reaction than the ones you get from good-looking vampires.

Still, to each his own. If Twihards and Truebies want to get a snake bite, let me help!* It’s really a snap. Here’s how:

  1. Play with the snake, tease it, pick it up with a stick to scare your friends. Most snake bites in the U.S. happen this way. A snake can strike to a distance of about half its body length.
  2. Merrily hop along in the high grass and brush, in just some tennies. Snakes are shy. They don’t want anything to do with you and will get out of your way if you’ll let them. But catch them by surprise and … snap. Ensure a good bite by not wearing boots and thick jeans.
  3. Snatch up that firewood. If you didn’t know, snakes like hiding under stuff. Don’t grab the logs from the top, or turn them over first, watching for movement underneath. That might keep you from getting bit. Also never wear gloves.
  4. If you see a snake coming toward you, freeze. Sometimes snakes get confused and crawl toward you instead of away. The fastest they’ve been clocked in the U.S. is three miles an hour. That’s average walking pace for a human. So don’t quickly walk away, or it’ll never be able to catch you.
  5. Try to kill it. Some rattlers can grow up to eight feet long. Given their extended striking ability, you might could even get a hoe after one and still get bitten, if you’re skittish.
  6. Go ahead and pick it up if it’s dead. A snake’s bite reflex can last for up to ninety minutes after it dies. Even a decapitated head can bite for that long.
  7. Pick it up if it’s not poisonous. Unless you’re an expert, you’re taking a big chance. And that’s what you’re looking for! In general, poisonous snakes have triangular heads, but with some, it’s hard to tell. Most have slit, cat-like pupils, but not all. Go ahead, bend over and get a good look. Rattlesnakes usually rattle, but not always. Pick one up and give it a shake to see.

But before you get those snake-fang marks, you’re going to need to read my next post, “How to Tell a Vampire Bite From a Poisonous Snake Bite,” coming Thursday, because, of course, a poisonous snake bite requires different treatment. Forget undead; a snake bite could leave you plain ol’ dead.

*Disclaimer: This post is sarcastic—a list of things not to do so you don’t get bitten. Also, I know Truebies aren’t that delusional. Twihards …? ;-)

Photo courtesy CDC/James Gathany.