How to Avoid and Deal with Snake Bites
Don’t let snake danger ruin your outdoor fun
By Michael Peters, MD, board-certified in Emergency Medicine
Summer is in full swing, which means it’s time for outdoor fun around lakes, campgrounds and hiking trails. But excited campers and families are not the only ones coming out to enjoy the nice weather—snakes are, too.
Most snakes found in Illinois are harmless, and venomous snakes are rare in the Chicagoland area. But be wary if your travels take you elsewhere in Illinois, as four species of venomous snakes are native to other parts of the state. These include the copperhead, the water moccasin or cottonmouth and the timber rattlesnake, native to southern Illinois, and the eastern massasauga, native to the northeastern part of the state. They can be found in woodpiles, under leaves, along riverbeds and in generally wooded areas.
These types of snakes are not aggressive towards humans. Most attacks occur because a snake feels no other option but to attack. Most bites occur when an unsuspecting hiker or rock climber startles, corners, touches, or steps on a snake.
To best avoid snake bites, there are a few steps you can take:
- When hiking, camping, or rock climbing, be sure make noise. If a snake hears you approach, it will move away. They are much more threatened by us than we are of them.
- Wear boots or chaps to provide a barrier between your legs and the snake.
- Never attempt to pick up or go near a snake, especially if it exhibits the features of being venomous, including elliptical pupils, a triangular-shaped head or a rattle on the tail.
- Do not keep venomous or exotic snakes as pets. Even experienced handlers may be bitten.
If a snake does bite you or a companion, it is critical to call 911 right away. Luckily, all bites by native Illinois snakes are treatable by a biological product called antivenin.
While waiting for help to arrive, remain as calm as possible, as rapid movement and elevated heartbeat can increase the flow of venom. Remove restrictive clothing or jewelry and try to keep the affected site below the level of the heart. Most importantly, do not attempt to withdraw or suck out the venom from a bite. This has not been proven to be an effective method of treatment.
It is important to know that even if you are bitten by a venomous snake, no venom may be injected. This is known as a “dry bite” and is common when snakes act in self-defense. These bites should still be examined by a doctor, as the effects of a snake bite may not occur for many hours after the bite.