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Poisonous Snakes and Snakebite in the U.S.: A Brief Review

By Sherman A. Minton

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This article briefly reviews some current ideas regarding snakebite in the Uniled States. Twenty species of native venomous snakes occur and include 15 species of rattlesnakes, the copperhead and cottonmouth, two species of coral snakes, and one seasnake. Snake venoms contain a variety of enzymes and non-enzymatic toxins. Composition may vary geographically, onto genetically, and individually. As determined by mouse toxicity, most lethal venoms are those of the Mohave rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus), tiger rattlesnake (C. tigris), and pelagic seasnake (Pelamis platurus). Venomous snakes may bite without injecting venom and rarely inject more than half their available venom. Some colubrid snakes generally presumed nonvenomous, such as garter snakes, can in rare instances inflict venomous bites.

Most snakebites in the United States are sustained close to the victim's home and usually reach medical aid within an hour. Fishermen, hunters, and backpackers do not seem to be a high risk group. Almost half the bites result from deliberate contact with a venomous snake. Symptoms of pit viper envenomation are reviewed. A persistent drop in blood pressure is the single most reliable indication of dangerous envenomation. About half the coral snake bites do not result in envenomation, but it is serious when it occurs.

Snakebite first aid measures and principles of treatment are reviewed. Two relatively new procedures, elastic bandaging of a bitten limb and use of a powerful small suction device are discussed. Procedures under development include ELISA tests to improve diagnosis and evaluate therapy, antivenoms of higher potency and lower allergenicity, and immunization for high risk individuals. Because of the complexity of evaluating snakebite and the chance that a layman might attempt a naive treatment more harmful than helpful, the emphasis in first aid for snakebite is to get the stricken individual promptly to a hospital.


Katie Carroll

Date 1987
Publication Title Northwest Science
Volume 61
Issue 2
Pages 7
Publisher Northwest Scientific Association
Language English
Additional Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Bites and stings
  3. Health
  4. Human-animal interactions
  5. Injuries
  6. Nature
  7. Reptiles
  8. safety
  9. Snakes
  10. venomous animals
  11. venoms
  12. Wild animals
  13. wildlife