The Myth of Cut­ting and Suck­ing Venom Out of a Snakebite

RECOIL OFFGRID - - Contents - By Tim MacWelch

Gear Philoso­phies

Your hike in a re­mote area seemed great un­til a sear­ing pain hits your an­kle. In­stinc­tively, you jump back in sur­prise and glimpse a coiled snake with brown and tan mark­ings. Burn­ing pain be­gins to spread through your lower leg. With your pulse and fear ris­ing, you re­al­ize that you’ve just been bit­ten by a ven­omous snake.

The Myth: Out­dated sur­vival man­u­als and old movies often il­lus­trate the “cut and suck” prac­tice of snakebite treat­ment. This me­dieval med­i­cal method in­volves cut­ting the flesh at the site of the bite, then suck­ing on the wound with your mouth or an ex­trac­tion de­vice. In the stress­ful af­ter­math of a real snakebite, we might de­cide to fall back on the pop cul­ture prac­tice, but this procedure is likely to in­crease the dam­age al­ready done.

The Re­al­ity: Un­less you know ex­actly where ar­ter­ies and nerves are lo­cated in the area of the snakebite, you could sever ten­dons, nerves, or blood ves­sels. You could end up com­pound­ing a ven­omous bite with po­ten­tially se­vere bleed­ing.

Many med­i­cal au­thor­i­ties, in­clud­ing the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, agree that al­most no venom will be re­moved by ex­trac­tion and that ex­trac­tion kits are es­sen­tially use­less. One study sug­gested that less than one-thou­sandth of a per­cent of venom gets re­moved by ex­trac­tion. Fur­ther­more, the venom may be in­tro­duced di­rectly into the blood­stream if you ac­ci­den­tally slice a blood ves­sel ad­ja­cent to a pocket of venom.

Many doc­tors and her­petol­o­gists have es­ti­mated that roughly one quar­ter to one third of the bites from ven­omous adult snakes are a “warn­ing bite,” more com­monly called a dry bite. This is an at­tack in­tended to re­pel a per­ceived threat, with lit­tle or no venom ex­pended. Since adult snakes can con­trol the amount of venom they in­ject, they don’t want to waste it on some­thing that won’t fit into their mouth (like a hu­man). You’ll usu­ally know in less than one hour if the nee­dle-like stab is the only sen­sa­tion you feel or if more signs and symp­toms fol­low.

The Al­ter­na­tives: Take the fol­low­ing steps if you or some­one in your group is bit­ten by a ven­omous snake:

Seek med­i­cal at­ten­tion as soon as pos­si­ble, if it’s avail­able (dial 911 or lo­cal EMS).

Wash the bite with soap and wa­ter, or a dis­in­fect­ing so­lu­tion like io­dine and wa­ter. Cover pit viper bites with a clean, dry dress­ing.

For the bite of a coral snake, use an Ace ban­dage or an im­pro­vised wrap (like a strip of stretchy fab­ric) to cre­ate a com­pres­sion dress­ing, start­ing above the bite and then cov­er­ing it.

If EMS can reach you quickly, keep still and calm. This keeps your heart rate down and can slow down the spread of venom. If you have to move, walk as slowly as you can. And if help is in­ac­ces­si­ble for the fore­see­able fu­ture, lay down with the bite be­low the level of your heart and pray to God that it was a dry bite. If it wasn’t, you may be able to sur­vive pit viper venom. Un­for­tu­nately, the par­a­lytic ef­fect of coral snake venom means that your chances aren’t good at all in aus­tere con­di­tions.

Know The Symp­toms: En­ven­o­ma­tion is un­pre­dictable, and the signs and symp­toms can vary de­pend­ing on the type of snake, the amount of venom, and your body’s re­ac­tion to it. Re­ac­tions can be­gin in min­utes or be de­layed for hours, and any ven­omous snakebite can cause dan­ger­ous neu­ro­toxic com­pli­ca­tions and prob­lems with blood clot­ting. The most com­mon bites in the U.S. are from pit vipers (rat­tlesnakes, cop­per­heads, and cot­ton­mouths). Ex­pect some or all of these signs in a vic­tim:

From a pit viper, a pair of punc­ture marks in the skin or, very rarely, one mark (when a fang is de­flected by some other ob­struc­tion, such as cloth­ing).

Red­ness, swelling, and se­vere pain around the bite

In­creased sali­va­tion, sweat­ing, and a “cop­pery” or metal­lic taste in the vic­tim’s mouth

Nau­sea and vom­it­ing


Difficulty breath­ing

Don’t try to catch or kill the snake. Take a pic­ture of it if you can, from a safe dis­tance. Or try to re­mem­ber the color and pat­tern of the snake.

Never ap­ply a tourni­quet. Even with neu­ro­toxic venom, don’t cut off the blood flow. Tourni­quets hold the venom in one area, caus­ing greater tis­sue dam­age af­ter the fact. Avoid caf­feine and al­co­hol. Ap­ply­ing ice to the bite won’t help.

Snakebite Stats

Of the 50,000 snakebite deaths that oc­cur world­wide each year, the U.S. ac­counts for less than half a dozen of them, on av­er­age. Of the thou­sands of an­nual U.S. snakebites, one third oc­cur when peo­ple are han­dling or other­wise taunt­ing the an­i­mals. Many of these bites oc­cur on the hand or fore­arm.

When peo­ple aren’t ha­rass­ing ven­omous snakes, 85 per­cent of bites oc­cur be­low the knee. At least one ven­omous snake species is found in ev­ery state, ex­cept for Alaska and Hawaii, although Hawaii res­i­dents ex­pe­ri­ence at­tacks by non-na­tive species, such as the Brown Tree Snake, which had in­ad­ver­tently been in­tro­duced to their ecosys­tem. Most species and sub­species of ven­omous snakes in the United States are rat­tlesnakes.


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