This column appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette. To syndicate the national version, contact DrHubbard [at] TheSurvivalDoctor [dot] com.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like snakes. Yes, I know the vast majority are nonvenomous and are good to have around. They eat pesky, disease carrying rodents, and some of the nonvenomous snakes, like king snakes and racers, actually kill the dangerous snakes. But that doesn’t mean my skin doesn’t crawl if I see one … crawling across the ground.

Fortunately for us in Colorado, the most common one we should avoid gives us a warning—the familiar rattle. Only a person with a mission to get bitten is going to walk toward this sound rather than shy away.
Even so, sometimes we’ll happen upon one. Here’s what to do if that occurs.

  1. Walk away. Snakes are shy. They don’t want to waste their venom on things like us, who are too big to eat. They only snap at us when they feel threatened.
  2. Sometimes walk a little faster. Occasionally snakes get confused and crawl toward us, but the fastest they’ve been clocked is 3 miles per hour. That’s our average walking rate. Just pick up your speed, maybe to trot?
  3. Don’t tease or pick up the snake, even with a stick. Many people get bitten this exact way. Some rattlers can grow up to eight feet long. They can strike as far as half their body length. Do the math.
  4. Don’t even mess with a dead one. The bite reflex from a dead snake can continue to be active for up to 90 minutes.

If you’re bitten:

  • Try not to panic. Even venomous snakes only inject venom about 80 percent of the time. Only about 50 percent of the time do they inject a lot. Your chance of surviving a poisonous snakebite is 95 percent—99.5 percent if you can get antivenin.
  • Try to determine if the bite is from a venomous snake. Usually you’ll see one or two fang marks. If venom has been injected, you’ll have severe pain, and swelling will start quickly in most cases.
  • Get to a medical facility. If you need antivenin, it’s best to receive it within four hours of the bite. If you have a cellphone, you may need to call for help. If you have to walk out and the bite is on the leg or foot, make a crutch out of a tree branch.
  • Try to drink plenty of noncaffeinated, nonalcoholic liquids. Stop if you vomit them back up, but otherwise, drink as much as you can. All the swelling that may occur around the bite can dehydrate you fast.

If you can’t get to a medical facility, clean the marks with soap and water, and keep the bite area at heart level or above to limit swelling.

Here are things you shouldn’t do:

  • Don’t cut into the marks. It doesn’t help and increases your risk for infection.
  • Don’t try to suck the poison out, even with instruments made for this. It wastes time and has never been proven to work.
  • Don’t use ice. It can damage tissue further.
  • Don’t use a tourniquet. It damages tissue, and when it’s released, you can get a sudden surge of venom.

When you’re on a hike consider wearing high-top shoes and thick jeans, and always watch your step.

Colorado Springs family doctor James Hubbard teaches how to survive when you can’t get to a doctor at, one of the most popular survival websites. Dr. Hubbard is the author of the best-selling e-books
The Survival Doctor’s Guide to Wounds and The Survival Doctor’s Guide to Burns.